Chertoff vows crackdown on employers, leads off with raids on IFCO
April 30, 2006
by Rand Green
The message is clear: Employers who "knowingly and recklessly employ illegal aliens" will be targeted by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement and will be punished.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for ICE, announced Thursday, April 20 a "comprehensive immigration enforcement strategy for the nation's interior" that includes a crackdown on employers hiring illegal immigrants.
There is a concern to many agricultural employers who rely heavily on an immigrant work force but who have been precluded by law from questioning the documentation presented to them by work applicants. They are hopeful that the crackdown will target only those who have blatantly and willfully violated the law and not those who are doing their best to comply with policies and regulations that are replete with contradictions.
On the same day that the crackdown on employers was announced, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security also issued a release stating that agents had raided IFCO Systems facilities in 26 states, arresting seven managers and 1,187 "illegal alien employees," constituting about half the company's U.S. work force.
IFCO Systems North America Inc., headquartered in Houston, is the largest pallet services company in the United States and a major supplier of reusable plastic containers for the produce industry. There was immediate concern in the industry about what effect IFCO's sudden loss of half its work force might have on its ability to deliver pallets and RPCs to the places and at the times they are needed to transport produce to market.
IFCO Vice President Mike Hachtman said in an April 21 statement that all of the company's facilities "are in operation and we are working diligently to meet all of our customers' needs."
The Produce News made inquiries to several produce industry leaders as to whether any disruptions in pallet and RPC logistics had been noticed, and as of Wednesday, April 26, no disruptions had yet been noticed. However, some observed that if there was an effect, it would not be likely to show up immediately.
In its statement, IFCO said that it is the company's policy "to comply with all federal and state employment provisions" and that it takes the ICE allegations "very seriously." IFCO is "very disturbed by these allegations" and has "immediately begun a through investigation of the facts."
According to the statement, "the activities and attitudes outlined in the allegations are counter to everything we stand for at IFCO. We have the highest respect for our nation's employment and citizenship laws and are committed to complying with them."
IFCO contends that it offers all its employees "a level of compensation and benefits ... that many of our peers do not, [including ] competitive wages, workers' compensation insurance, affordable health insurance, 401k and various other benefits.
"We are cooperating fully with ICE and other authorities," the statement continued. "We are now working to understand the facts and we will implement any additional changes necessary to further improve our current procedures."
An IFCO spokesperson told The Produce News that the company has no comment at this time.
The Department of Homeland Security press release paints quite a different picture, however, stating that the seven current and former managers of IFCO who have been arrested "are charged with conspiring to transport, harbor, encourage and induce illegal aliens to reside in the United States for commercial and private financial gain." The charges carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 "for each alien with respect to whom the violation takes place."
Two other IFCO employees were arrested on criminal charges relating to fraudulent documents, according to the DHS release. "In addition to the criminal arrests, ICE agents [on April 19] conducted 'consent' searches or executed criminal search warrants at more than 40 IFCO plants and related locations in 26 states that resulted in the apprehension of approximately 1,187 illegal alien IFCO employees."
The raids took place in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia and Utah.
"The arrests and search warrants are part of an ongoing criminal investigation of IFCO's Pallet Management Services division that began more than a year ago," the statement said.
A government affidavit alleges, among other things, that approximately 53.4 percent of the Social Security numbers contained on the IFCO Systems North America Inc. payroll of roughly 5,800 workers during 2005 were either invalid, did not match the true name registered with the Social Security Administration for that number, or belonged to children or deceased persons.
Secretary Chertoff made it clear that the department was making an example of IFCO that other employers should heed. "Employers and workers alike should be on notice that the status quo has changed," Mr. Chertoff said, in the department's news release. "These enforcement actions demonstrate that this department has no patience for employers who tolerate or perpetuate a shadow economy. We intend to find employers who knowingly or recklessly hire unauthorized workers and we will use every authority within our power to shut down businesses that exploit an illegal workforce to turn a profit."
Jasper Hempel, executive vice president of Western Growers Association, which represents a large number of produce growers in California and Arizona, told The Produce News, "Obviously, the laws are on the books that employers are not allowed to hire illegal undocumented workers. All we have ever said is give us a legal work force."
WGA advises its members to comply with all of the I-9 [Employment Eligibility Verification form] requirements and to make photocopies of the identification documents "proffered by the employees," Mr. Hempel said. "If on the face of the documents, you don't see any defects, we are precluded by law - by civil rights laws, discrimination laws - from making any inquiries beyond that. We can't inquire as to whether or not they are fraudulent. We have to take them at face value. So again, we keep imploring Congress and the president to give us a legal work force so we can avoid the kinds of things that happened at IFCO.
"It is frustrating for us as an industry that we are unable to get immigration reform, because there is no group of people who want immigration reform more than farmers," he said.
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League in Fresno, CA, told The Produce News, "I know of no one in the grape and tree fruit industries that knowingly hires illegals. The fact is, we understand that much of our work force is undocumented. But that is much different than knowingly hiring, because all of our employers go through the very strict process of recognizing what documents need to be presented in order to work."
As to whether undocumented workers are exploited by agricultural employers, Mr. Bedwell said, "I have not seen evidence of that." Since employers require documentation before hiring and the employer has no way of knowing which documents might be forged, all workers are treated the same, he said. "Our wage laws are very clear."
The average wage for workers in the grape and tree fruit industry is around $9.50 an hour, well above state and national minimum wage requirements, Mr. Bedwell noted.
"Given that level, we can see that it attracts people who are making five to 10 times less in our neighbor country to the south, to the point where they will risk their lives coming here."
Joel Nelsen of California Citrus Mutual in Exeter, CA, told The Produce News that the stepped-up enforcement has come in response to political pressure, and he expressed hope that ICE would focus its enforcement "on those entities that are glaring in their abuse of the immigration system."
But Mr. Nelsen is not confident that the enforcement will be fair and balanced. "No, I think they've got some targets in mind," he said, "and they are going to prove to the conservative faction of the Republican party that they can enforce.
"Hopefully Congress will act sooner rather than later on a fair immigration bill that allows for the proper enforcement while simultaneously establishing a guest worker program" in which the undocumented workers presently in the country can participate, Mr. Nelsen said. "Congress has got to act on that very soon, because otherwise you are gong to have a one-sided approach to this problem."