Few Employers Use Program that Identifies Illegal Workers

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Employers who hire illegal workers save themselves money with off-the-record bookkeeping. Although a federal service exists to help employers identify workers with fake green cards, few businesses take advantage of it. And the agency charged with enforcement doesn't always have time to pursue illegal employers.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It is against the law to hire illegal immigrants, but that hasn't stopped employers. Rachael Myrow of member station KPCC looks at that side of the equation.

RACHAEL MYROW reporting:

Decades of neglect have preserved a certain turn-of-the-last-century charm in South Los Angeles, but with rising home prices come new owners who want new pipes, wires and foundations. One contractor, who prefers not to use his name, will modernize your bungalow for a hundred to three hundred grand--cash, of course. Does his under-the-table bookkeeping dissuade potential clients? No.

Unidentified Man: When you go to restaurants, do you ask if everybody is legal in the kitchen? No. You know, people don't do that. When you go to get your car fixed, do you ask? No, you know--so, no, nobody does it in construction, either.

MYROW: That said, the contractor, a soft-spoken boyishly charming man of 44, figures he pays his workers better than the average for illegal labor. The most skilled on his crew make 30 bucks an hour.

Unidentified Man: I try to give people a living wage. So nobody makes less than $10 an hour. We're not out to abuse anybody, which a lot of people are when you go to Home Depot and stuff. They only pick somebody up and just work them for $4 an hour.

MYROW: Whatever the wage is, operating on a cash-only basis saves contractors like him on payroll, taxes and insurance. Still, plenty of employers do pay taxes and insurance on illegal workers. Some illegal immigrants carry fake Social Security and green cards, and when they're hired, employers file those fake numbers with the federal government. Is there a way the employer can tell if those numbers are fake? Yes. Quite easily. There's a toll-free number courtesy of a free federal pilot program. Chris Bentley of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services explains.

Mr. CHRIS BENTLEY (US Citizenship and Immigration Services): It allows them to in a matter of seconds take the information and verify it against 450 million Social Security Administration files and an additional 65 million Department of Homeland Security files.

MYROW: But few employers make the call. The program is voluntary, and only 4,400 employers are signed up nationwide. There's no big stick encouraging employers to take part in the program. Although federal law prohibits employing illegal workers, companies can't be held responsible for failing to spot forged documents, and the law is rarely enforced, says Kevin Jeffrey, LA's deputy special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Mr. KEVIN JEFFREY (Immigration and Customs Enforcement): We can find employers, but it has been an issue where a lot of those fines are settled for pennies on the dollar. And if you've got a multimillion-dollar business, what's a $10,000 fine? It's something that Congress and people are going to have to take a hard look at, and we as a society are going to have to decide, do we really want employers to go to jail for doing this, or do we want to just do what we've been doing and winking at them and, you know, kind of letting it go by the board?

MYROW: For example, Jeffrey says, just 400 agents oversee a district including most of Southern California and parts of Nevada. Issues in their inbox include port security, airport security, money laundering, narcotics, financial fraud, organized crime as well as trade in counterfeit goods, state secrets and human beings. Weeding out illegal workers, he says, is just not a major concern for ICE, unless you're talking about a work site with national security implications, like LAX or a nuclear plant.

Mr. JEFFREY: To be perfectly honest with you, people who are working at Rigoberto's Taco Shop(ph), they're way back on the back burner. With the limited people and all the responsibilities we have, we just can't be everything for everybody.

MYROW: That exasperates those who feel that American citizens are losing out to a black market system that lowers wages and cuts into the tax base. Joseph Turner heads Save Our State, a Southern California group opposed to illegal immigration.

Mr. JOSEPH TURNER (Save Our State): When you have other people who are undercutting or gaining the system and doing things that are illegal and where there's no prosecution or enforcement of those laws again these people who are cheating the system, it forces many people who would like to play by the rules to, in fact, break the rules because otherwise they would be out of business or starve.

MYROW: Like it or not, agrees Turner, that's the reality employers face, especially in states with large illegal immigrant populations, like California.

For NPR News, I'm Rachael Myrow in Los Angeles.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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