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Originally published September 18, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 19, 2006 at 12:25 AM

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Get-tough policy on employers has had limited effect

It was 4 in the morning when immigration agents roused Eugene Su from sleep in a new, five-bedroom house on a quiet suburban street in Tacoma...

Seattle Times business reporter

It was 4 in the morning when immigration agents roused Eugene Su from sleep in a new, five-bedroom house on a quiet suburban street in Tacoma.

He recalls being handcuffed and herded into the living room along with nine other people suspected of being illegal workers at the Great Wall, a Chinese restaurant a few blocks away.

Su, a U.S. citizen, was released later that morning in 2005. Heavily armed agents took the other workers away in a van for possible deportation, he said.

The restaurant owner, Jian Zhong Tang, who owned the house, ended up behind bars.

"They looked like a SWAT team," Su said of the agents who burst into the house.

The Great Wall arrests are part of what federal immigration officials call a crackdown on companies that employ illegal workers. Rather than ineffective fines, employers now face the prospect of prosecution under criminal statutes for money-laundering or harboring immigrants that can lead to asset seizures and jail time.

But despite some big fines and a few jail terms for employers, the government's get-tough effort appears limited. In Washington state, agents have announced only two convictions of employers — both Chinese restaurants. They have missed other obvious sectors such as farms and construction sites where illegal workers are prevalent.

And few details are available about other arrests, prompting skepticism about the crackdown's true extent.

The prospect of prison

Immigration officials say they are trying this new tactic after years of failure to rein in illegal employment.

"Many employers simply treated fines as the cost of doing business," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "A fine might not get somebody's attention, but the prospect of going to prison certainly does."

So far this year, ICE has arrested more than 445 people, including some employers, on criminal charges, up from 72 in all of 2003, when the agency was created out of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service. ICE also has started administrative deportations of more than 2,700 workers.

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Among the biggest busts: In May, ICE agents arrested 76 illegal workers at Fischer Homes, a Kentucky-based construction company that employed hundreds in numerous states. In April, ICE arrested 1,187 illegal workers at more than 40 offices of IFCO Systems, a shipping-pallet maker based in Texas. Supervisors or managers also were arrested in both cases, and some face criminal indictments on charges that could carry years of prison time, according to ICE.

Earlier this month, ICE rounded up more than 120 illegal immigrants in the small town of Stillmore, Ga.

But some experts see little lasting effect from such raids and tougher penalties.

"It will scare a lot of people, employers and undocumented workers, but not really change the behavior of those that count," said B. Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

Indeed, five of the 12 busts ICE has disclosed in its national fact sheet about cases are small restaurants like Great Wall — three Chinese, one Mexican and one sushi.

Absent from ICE's list of enforcement actions are any businesses in the farming sector, where illegal workers are prevalent. Fischer Homes is the only construction company on the list.

"The modest enforcement actions we've seen this spring and summer can hardly be suggested to represent gaining control over the situation," said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington, D.C., research institute that favors stronger enforcement.

ICE has announced just three moves against Washington state employers since 2003 — all in Pierce County. Two were Chinese restaurants — Great Wall and Rainbow Buffet, in Tacoma. Both led to convictions.

The third case, involving Regal Logistics, a warehouse in Fife, in 2005 netted 105 workers suspected of working illegally. So far, the employers have not been penalized, though ICE said the investigation is continuing.

On Aug. 30, ICE agents also rounded up 26 workers at Northwest Health Care Linen in Bellingham. No employers were arrested in the raid, the company said.

Skimpy enforcement data

Kice said the agency has made other arrests in Washington but hasn't announced them, and she declined to provide details. Indeed, it's hard to get a clear picture of ICE's efforts because the agency says basic statistics are not readily available.

For example, ICE said it can't disclose how many arrests it made in each state, nor whether it arrested more people at restaurants, factories or stores.

"ICE's law-enforcement databases do not break down the information this way," said Jamie Zuieback, a bureau spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "They track specific criminal violations, not the industries of the violators."

That's a sharp contrast with ICE's predecessor, the INS, which kept detailed data, but which also showed weak enforcement.

For example: Between 1986 and 2000, INS brought cases against seven Washington farms for violating undocumented-worker laws, according to a database INS provided to CIS. The violations involved just 51 workers. On average, employers paid a fine of about $170 per worker.

Such light enforcement emboldened employers, ICE now says. And it got lighter as the agency's focus shifted. As early as 1999, INS started to target cases that included other crimes, such as smuggling drugs or harboring illegal immigrants.

ICE has further focused on violations at "critical infrastructure," such as military and nuclear sites, seaports and airports that could be terrorist targets.

"By emphasizing that, they were de-emphasizing audits and investigations of industries where they knew there were a lot of unauthorized workers employed," said Peter Brownell, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

Business as usual

The Regal Logistics case shows the difficulty ICE faces in enforcing the current immigration law. In November 2005, immigration agents stormed the company's warehouse complex in Fife, rounding up and arresting 105 workers. They also raided Phoenix Staffing, a related company that supplied the illegal workers.

The raid capped a yearlong investigation in which ICE sent lists of workers provided by Regal and Phoenix to the Social Security Administration. The SSA said the Social Security numbers were invalid or didn't match their names. But to impose a penalty, ICE had to prove the employers knew the workers had used false or borrowed documents when they were hired.

"If an employer makes a good-faith effort to verify the work status, that's all the law requires," Kice said. "We have to be able to prove they knew that person was not authorized to work."

So Regal received no penalty.

"We picked up and kept going the very next day," said Garry Neeves, vice president and member of the family that owns the business.

By contrast, the Chinese-restaurant cases led to prison terms for their owners, in part because the live-in arrangement often points to collusion.

Even so, ICE made a plea deal. Great Wall restaurant owner Tang was charged with seven counts of harboring illegal immigrants, each with a penalty of up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine. He faced the tough task of trying to convince a jury that he didn't know his workers were illegal even though they lived in his house.

"The government's position was he had to know," said Russell Aoki, Tang's attorney.

Tang, now 38, pleaded guilty to just one count. He is serving 10 months at the federal detention center in SeaTac. He also paid back wages and taxes owed under state laws (see related story), but no fine.

The Great Wall closed for two days, Su said. Then it carried on as before.

Standing in a busy dining room at lunch, Su says the restaurant no longer employs illegal workers.

Little else changed. Tang still owns the nearby home where the illegal workers were arrested.

And the restaurant still houses employees there.

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3392 or ascott@seattletimes.com

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