Sunday, June 18, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
INS has shifted focus, halted field raids
By Lynda V. Mapes
ELTOPIA, Franklin County -- They bend nearly double at the waist, slashing with a knife at green spears in this dusty field, then tuck the fresh-cut asparagus into baskets on their hips in one swinging motion.
Of the 54 workers laboring in this sun-baked field, perhaps 12 are in the United States legally, estimates foreman Juan Hernandez.
"Are we going to put all the white people out there with a bucket on their hip?" asks Hernandez, who came here legally in 1975, starting as an asparagus cutter. "I don't think so."
While the law doesn't allow it, U.S. immigration practices and economic realities have all but guaranteed it: Undocumented workers, an estimated 6 million of them, are a mainstay of industries across the United States.
And in Washington, where agriculture remains the dominant industry and a top employer, undocumented Mexicans comprise up to 70 percent of seasonal farmworkers. Their low-wage labor allows the state's $1.2 billion tree-fruit industry to compete on the international market and gives Americans the lowest food prices in the world.
It makes for a formidable, if largely illegal, economic triad:
Growers want cheap labor.
Americans want cheap food.
And Mexicans, hungry for a doorway to America or to middle-class dreams at home, want work.
That economy is so entrenched that the government has become complicit in its support.
In March, under pressure from growers and politicians, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) quietly signaled a significant shift in national enforcement policy:
Random raids are out; so-called "friendly compliance" is in. The INS now identifies illegal workers through payroll audits, then tells employers to remedy the paperwork or fire the worker.
But even then, the worker is no longer deported. Instead, the INS has boosted its efforts to control the U.S.-Mexico border and target hard-core crime.
The shift comes because that field raids were disruptive not only to the illegal workers but to the growers and consumers who have come to depend on them.
"There is kind of a balancing act," said Robert Coleman, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Seattle. "There is a lot of important criminal work for us to do. We don't need to just grab everybody."
More than 125,000 seasonal workers toil in Washington's orchards and fields each year -- more than in any but three states. The brief and delicate cherry harvest alone requires as many as 20,000 workers, and that demand is expected to double within five years.
"I don't know what we would do without the illegal workers," said Ami MacHugh, who grows cherries and asparagus in Eltopia. "If we lost it, we would be up a creek."
Dependence on a steady stream of illegal Mexican workers runs so deep, across so many industries, that the politicians and business leaders who once lobbied for tougher restrictions now seek common ground with migrant advocates. As the economy enjoys a historic expansion, including the lowest unemployment in 30 years, an unlikely alliance is pushing to gain amnesty for existing workers and to reform U.S. immigration law.
"I've been in this for 15 years and I haven't seen anything quite like it," said Randy Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The demand for change also has emboldened illegal workers to speak out and organize. The mythology has undocumented workers huddled in dark basements, whispering false names and shunning attention, fearful of being identified, arrested and deported.
But their numbers have grown so large, and their labor so essential, that fear is dissipating. Many speak openly of the hard work here and the loved ones left at home. They give their names with pride, their legal status without shame and their opinions with fervor.
Two weeks ago, more than 3,000 farmworkers, many of them lacking legal work papers, marched down the streets of Pasco, Franklin County, demanding amnesty and better pay.
"They are not afraid of us anymore," said the INS' Coleman.
Illegal farmworkers say there is little need to be. No one else, they say, will do America's dirty work.
Familiar faces, new names
Like many growers in Eastern Washington, Dave and Ami MacHugh rely on familiar pickers year after year. The workers know the MacHugh's fields -- 300 acres of cherries and 400 of asparagus -- and the MacHughs know which workers have proved nimble and strong. They hired 874 pickers last season just to bring in their cherry crop.
But while the faces are familiar, the work documents often change.
"It's kind of a joke," Ami MacHugh said.
INS policy essentially deputizes growers to check documents that prove eligibility to work in this country.
But prospective workers can produce any of 29 approved documents -- from a Social Security card to a green card to a school ID. And employers are warned not to ask too many questions: Intense scrutiny of someone who speaks Spanish or has ethnic features could draw a race-discrimination charge under U.S. law.
So most growers, desperate to harvest before ripe crops turn rotten, scan the papers and nod. Then, in the dead of winter, they ship their payroll forms to the Social Security Administration.
Long after the harvest is over, the letters come flooding back: There are no matches on file for the names and Social Security numbers most of the workers provided.
"They tell us we'll have to check their documents," MacHugh said. "Well, that's going to be a little hard since a lot of them aren't even in the country anymore."
It is a wink-and-nod system that frustrates growers, workers and the government. Republican U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington told colleagues two years ago that the law was flawed to the point of hypocrisy.
"We have a situation that makes a violator . . . out of almost every agricultural employer in the United States of America who needs labor on a seasonal basis," he said.
But it's also a situation both worker and grower have learned to use to their mutual benefit.
"The illegal people are hungry," MacHugh said. "They want to make money to send home to their families. Once they become legal they become Americanized. They get lazy."
Legislators ask INS to back off
Just three years ago, more than 2,000 undocumented workers, nearly all of them Mexican nationals, were arrested and deported in raids in Eastern Washington -- a six-year high.
The Washington Farm Bureau warned of widespread worker shortages. Cherry and apple growers, struggling under weather and market forces, fretted their crops would rot in the fields. Immigrant-rights groups complained of heavy-handed INS tactics.
The outcry prompted U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, and Republican Reps. Richard "Doc" Hastings and Jennifer Dunn to complain to the INS about over-zealous enforcement.
In the past 18 months, U.S. Border Patrol agents haven't set foot on a single farm in Eastern Washington.
"We are not doing anything, no raids at all," said Paul Jones, with the Border Patrol office in Spokane. "We are doing what our name implies: Border Patrol."
An INS internal memo issued in March detailed the agency's priorities for enforcement inside U.S. borders. Work-site enforcement rated dead last.
That doesn't sit well with critics, who argue the laws need to be changed, not ignored.
"I have some sympathy for the INS because the present laws are so unrealistic," said Gorton. "But the laws are the laws and they ought to be enforced."
The policy shift is an attempt to manage limited resources in keeping with public wishes, said Coleman, the INS district director in Seattle.
Enforcement now is targeted at egregious violations of immigration law and related criminal activity -- narcotics, gangs, document vending and smuggling, according to Pat Schmidt, assistant director for investigations in Seattle. A top priority is targeting an estimated $8 billion-a-year business of international alien-smuggling rings.
"The Border Patrol used to spend a lot of time in agriculture, but the country said, "Get back on the border,'" Coleman said. "We are looking at what kind of threat people are to society."
In order to thwart illegal entries, the INS has more than doubled its border force, from 4,000 to almost 9,000, since 1992. Its budget has increased more than 200 percent in that time.
Most of those agents work on the Mexican border. The Spokane sector of the Border Patrol has just 25 field agents to police 350 miles of the Canadian border beginning at the Cascade Crest all the way to Glacier National Park in central Montana.
For routine work-site enforcement aimed at detecting people working illegally in the United States, the INS has seven people to investigate 163,000 employers in Washington state. Two of them handle all of Eastern Washington.
Now instead of random raids, the agency audits employers' payroll and personnel records. If the INS detects discrepancies, it gives the employer some time to resolve the situation or fire the worker. But the worker is not deported.
That was the case earlier this month in Eastern Oregon, where the INS conducted a targeted sweep of 22 large businesses, forcing them to fire 440 illegal workers.
The goal is to put financial pressure on undocumented workers to leave -- depriving them of the work that lures them here -- rather than spend taxpayer dollars on revolving migration.
In Eastern Washington, random raids were suspended, in part, because they proved ineffective. Growers would scramble to find other workers -- mostly illegal. And workers would scramble back across the border as soon as they raised enough cash to pay the "coyote," or smuggler.
MacHugh remembers only one raid in her fields by the INS, 15 years ago. And while the Internal Revenue Service can fine growers $50 for every incorrect Social Security number submitted, MacHugh says that's never happened to her.
'It's an absurd situation'
The shift in INS priorities and talk of a new amnesty concerns critics, who warn about overrun borders, burgeoning welfare rolls, deflated wages, exploited workers and tax fraud.
"Not only are we not prosecuting people for breaking the law, now we are telling them they also get what they broke the law for in the first place -- a green card," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C., a lobbying group opposed to widespread amnesty.
"It's like telling someone who's robbed a bank: 'Not only will you not be prosecuted, you get to keep the money.' "
Some even say erratic enforcement of the laws, and conflicting government policies, makes a bad situation worse:
Pay pressures grew this year after Washington imposed the new minimum wage of $6.50 an hour. Many pickers and pruners are paid on a piecework basis -- $1.25 to prune a tree, $3.50 to pick a box of cherries, for example. If a grower can't make a piecework quota that at least totals the minimum wage, crew bosses could be tempted to fire the worker or fudge records.
Reuel Paradis, regional administrator of the state Department of Labor and Industries, says complaints of wage fraud have increased since January. The department can't document that fraud because not all workers, or crew bosses, keep reliable records.
"What we see instead are people hat in hand very humbly saying I didn't get paid," Paradis said. "It's appalling from a human standpoint, and from an enforcement aspect we are standing here alone."
"What you end up with is a system that allows employers and illegal immigrants to collude with each other and laugh at the law, and puts us in a posture of defending a system we know . . . is corrupt," said Demetrios Papademetriou, an immigration expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
It also is inconsistent. Just as the INS is charged with keeping illegal workers out of the country, the IRS is charged with taxing those same workers.
Social Security has counted $265 billion in wages since 1937 that it can't match to any valid Social Security numbers.
But the IRS allows illegal workers to file tax returns with a so-called Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Illegal aliens can claim tax refunds and take advantage of the U.S. government's $500 tax credit for every child living with them in the United States.
"It's an absurd situation," said Guadalupe Gamboa, director of United Farm Workers of Washington.
Need for workers highest ever
Despite the controversy that walks with it -- illegal immigration remains one of most volatile issues in the nation -- the U.S. government has actively encouraged cycles of Mexican migration for more than 50 years.
As the economy booms, and competition for labor grows fierce, those forces have never been stronger. Just as the high-tech industry lobbies for open doors to foreign workers, the agricultural industry is clamoring for field workers. Growers point to increased competition with world markets -- apple juice from China, apples from China, New Zealand and Australia -- to bolster their case.
Since the first large wave of pickers surged over the border during World War II, Mexicans have built a tight network and a wealth of survival savvy: They know how to cross the border, find safe harbor on a vast underground railroad, gather false documents and make job contacts.
At least 80 percent of households in Mexico know someone who has migrated to the U.S., legally or not; 73 percent have a friend or relative living here now, said Doug Massey, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania and national expert on migration trends.
As scrutiny tightens at urban crossing areas, alien smuggling has moved to remote, rural areas of the border. And the probability of arrest has dropped despite an increase in the number of Border Patrol agents. Massey's research shows the likelihood of arrest during any given crossing has fallen to less than 20 percent -- half what it was in the 1970s.
Critics warn that amnesty for existing undocumented workers will spur even more human smuggling.
"Even talking about it will only encourage more lawless behavior," said Stein, of the reform federation.
Gorton supports efforts to welcome "guest workers" -- legal, but temporary labor -- into the country. But he is a staunch opponent of blanket amnesty for illegal residents.
"All an amnesty does is encourage illegal immigration and make fools of people who abide by the rules," he said.
But short of wholesale militarization at the border, or dismantling an economic system, little the U.S. does will alter a half-century of co-dependence.
"If we want to separate from Mexico, it's a little late," Massey said.
Invitations and amnesty
Over the years, the United States government has been a key architect in building that co-dependence.
Under the Bracero Program (bracero means "laborer," derived from the Spanish brazo, or "arm"), the U.S. recruited 4.5 million Mexican farmworkers from 1942 until 1962 to help feed the post-war baby boom. Many of those workers settled here, bringing their families.
In 1986, Congress granted a sweeping amnesty that legalized an additional 2.3 million Mexican immigrants. The amnesty was traded for the promise of tough, new immigration enforcement.
But illegal immigration increased, provoking a new anti-immigrant backlash.
Laws such as California's Proposition 187, adopted in 1994 but later ruled unconstitutional, attempted to discourage migration by cutting off access to publicly funded services for illegal immigrants.
Congress in 1996 barred noncitizen immigrants from receiving many government social services. It raised the income required for legal immigrant citizens to bring family members here; increased penalties for overstaying visas; and boosted fees for legal migrants to become permanent residents.
Instead of discouraging migration, the nativist policies spurred a rush of applications for citizenship by legal immigrants already here.
Historically, Mexican nationals sought citizenship at far lower rates than other immigrant groups, preferring to preserve ties to their homeland. But applications for naturalization from Mexicans grew as much as 300,000 a year through the 1980s, to almost 1,000,000 in 1995.
Once they become citizens, they are entitled to bring relatives to this country.
Meanwhile, the border crackdown has had the perverse effect of encouraging migration among workers eager to get here before the political pendulum swings again. Once in the U.S., many feel trapped, finding what work they can between harvest seasons, and remaining in the U.S. rather than risking the danger and expense of multiple border crossings.
The push for a new amnesty
An unprecedented mix of business, labor, religious, and pro-immigration groups are seeking common ground on which to build an amnesty proposal and reform U.S. immigration law.
"The economy is booming, and employers are experiencing (worker) shortages across a broad spectrum of jobs," said Johnson, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Limited amnesty proposals are on the table for a range of targeted groups, notably high-tech workers and farm laborers. The Clinton administration has proposed extending amnesty to an estimated 500,000 people left out of the general amnesty in 1986.
Growers are pushing a bill that would grant permanent residence to illegal immigrants who work in U.S. fields at least 180 days a year for five of the next seven years.
But legalizing the agricultural work force can be a Catch-22. As undocumented workers gain valid papers, good references and functional English, they likely will leave the fields for better jobs.
So growers want laws that will guarantee an abundant force of guest workers let into the country during harvest season, then ushered home.
The problem is national in scope. A new survey by the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 52 percent of farmworkers across the country are undocumented -- a jump from 37 percent just two years ago.
"We are really behind the eight ball," said Sharon Hughes of the National Council of Agricultural Employers. "It's gotten a lot worse, fast."
The shift in public sentiment over U.S. immigration policy was made tangible in February by the AFL-CIO, which now actively recruits illegal workers to its ranks. The nation's largest labor collective supports a general amnesty for undocumented workers and an end to the same employer sanctions it insisted on in 1986.
Organized labor long had worked to keep foreign workers from taking U.S. jobs. But a brisk economy and political reality is changing that.
"In the past it was easy for labor to say, 'Call the INS and these guys are gone forever,' " said Eric Franklin, an organizing director for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. "Well, hell, they are right back -- not next week, but the next day. And now you are their enemy."
After years of stagnation, the union is growing, in part through signing undocumented workers who are hungry for better pay and protection and willing to risk long-held secrecy to get it.
"A lot of immigrants are saying if they are gonna get deported, at least they are going to get deported with dignity," said Jimmy Matta, a Latino organizer for the carpenter's union in Seattle.
"They are coming out of the closet," agreed Linda Chavez-Thompson, AFL-CIO executive vice president in Washington, D.C. "They are demanding that they are workers and should have rights."
In Los Angeles, undocumented janitors joined legal colleagues in a highly publicized strike for higher wages.
"They were absolutely fearless," said Mike Garcia, president of Los Angeles Local 1877 of the Service Employees Union International, which won a new contract with higher wages on April 24.
In New York, illegal workers joined legal Latino immigrants to lobby for tough penalties against employers who cheat them on wages. Republican Gov. George Pataki signed a wage-enforcement bill in 1997 with the backing of businesses that resented unfair competition from unscrupulous employers.
In Minneapolis, undocumented hotel workers became national media celebrities after their employer, Holiday Inn Express, sought to deport them last October when they sought to unionize. Far from deporting them, the INS granted the employees a two-year stay and is expected to grant them legal work status by this summer.
And two Sundays ago in Pasco, 3,000 workers -- many of them illegal -- marched to kick off the 2000 cherry harvest with demands for higher pay and amnesty for undocumented workers.
"They are not, and have not been, afraid of the INS for years," said Coleman, the agency's regional director. "They walk in and out of our building here all day long, and that's OK."
Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
[ seattletimes.com home ]
[ Classified Ads | NWsource.com | Contact Us | Search Archive ]