Illegal workers quietly let go
The janitorial firm of a local conservative talk-radio host is the latest target of a new Obama administration strategy to thin the ranks of illegal immigrants by pursuing the companies that hire them.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A janitorial company owned by a local conservative talk-radio host is among the early targets of a new strategy by the Obama administration to thin the ranks of illegal immigrants by going after the companies that hire them.
Seattle Building Maintenance, owned by KVI talk-radio host Peter Weissbach and his wife, provides janitorial services in buildings throughout the Puget Sound region, including such Seattle landmarks as the Seattle Art Institute, Pacific Place, Metropolitan Park and the Dexter Horton and Westin buildings.
The subject of an ongoing immigration audit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, the company has been clearing its books by firing some of its janitorial staff — about 100 people so far — believed to be working illegally.
The probe of Seattle Building Maintenance offers an early glimpse into ICE's approach to worksite enforcement — stealthily targeting employers rather than workers.
It's a departure from the big splashy raids that used to play out on the evening news, with large numbers of immigrants being rounded up and carted off to detention, where many faced removal.
Now, workers are quietly let go by their employers, without the direct contact with immigration agents that might lead to deportation.
Immigrant advocates who initially lauded the shift in strategy as more humane are now seeing the impact it has on workers unable to find new jobs in a slow economy, while their employers appear to escape largely unscathed, much as they did under the old policy.
And those who support enforcement say the new policy is shortsighted, that along with not really punishing employers it does nothing to remove illegal immigrants, instead leaving them free to move to the next willing employer.
Service Employees International Union Local 6, which represents about 280 of Seattle Building's workers, said as many as 150 of them might be undocumented. The company has an estimated workforce of up to 300 people.
The workers are being released not all at once, but in waves, to make it easier for managers to find their replacements, the union said.
Company officials did not return telephone calls seeking comment but in a statement said that the terminations were necessary to comply with federal immigration law and that the company "encourages development and implementation of a rational national immigration policy."
ICE did not confirm the investigation.
The agency's new enforcement approach was showcased in Los Angeles last month when American Apparel fired 1,800 immigrant employees — more than a quarter of its workforce — after an immigration audit.
And a janitorial company in Minnesota quietly fired 1,200 workers around the same time after an investigation found they were working there illegally.
A year ago, those would have been major worksite raids — visible, public and splashy.
"From an advocate perspective it's an improvement on some level over what was happening before," said Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
"But it still doesn't resolve the ultimate issue: we [in this country] need this workforce, and we don't have a path for companies to hire them legally."
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the cases in Minnesota and California suggest that employers are escaping penalty and that the administration's new policy appears to deter neither employers nor the illegal-immigrant workers they hire.
"This does nothing to address the millions of people in the country illegally" who have an incentive to remain here as long as possible in the hopes of eventually winning amnesty, Mehlman said.
"As long as that's on the table," Mehlman said, "they will stick it out because there's a good chance of being rewarded."
In a recent speech, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged that immigration laws now lack teeth in successfully prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegally immigrants and said fines are so low dishonest businesses often ignore them.
Reform being planned in Congress should increase the civil and criminal penalties for employers who violate immigration laws as well as extend "earned legal status" to many of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, she said.
In a letter to workers, Seattle Building said immigration investigators were looking into statements regarding its compliance with immigration laws that were made by a former executive who left the company in May.
In August the firm signed up for E-Verify, a free federal online service that allows employers to compare information provided by new hires against government social security and immigration records.
In September, Seattle Building told its union it had received an audit notice. It then began notifying workers whose Social Security numbers did not match their names, giving them about a month to verify their work eligibility or lose their jobs.
Sergio Salinas, SEIU Local 6's president, said the union has filed grievances against Seattle Building over the firings but admitted there's nothing it can do to stop them.
He said unlike other immigration investigations elsewhere, Seattle Building used E-Verify to ferret out those on its payroll who might be illegal — something a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security, which administers the program, call an "inappropriate" use of E-Verify. The system is intended to be used for new hires — not to check existing employees.
Seattle Building informed workers in a recent letter that as part of ICE's investigation, agents have been contacting current and former employees for interviews.
It offered for free the services of an attorney for the company — to be used not for the workers' personal immigration cases but in advance of any interviews workers might have with government investigators. Some workers see that move as forcing them to choose between cooperating with the feds or remaining loyal to their employer, the union said.
The offer is especially tricky coming after the closely watched ICE investigation at an engine remanufacturing plant in Bellingham, Yamato Engine Specialists, which became the first — and only — worksite raid of this administration. Agents apprehended 28 illegal immigrants during that raid.
Saying the administration had not been informed of the bust beforehand — and considering Obama's pledge to focus enforcement more on employers — Napolitano asked agents to explain their actions.
As a result, her department established new guidelines for worksite enforcement.
Because ICE needed the assistance of workers as it built its case against Yamato, it granted many of them work permits — a perk the Seattle Building workers are hoping they might get, as well.
In the end, Yamato was fined $100,000 and two of its owners, who pleaded guilty to knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, were sentenced to a year probation — punishment Mehlman of FAIR, calls a "slap on the wrist."
Seattle Times researchers David Turim and Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
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