The INS Hits LA’s Garment Industry Hard. Rock Hard.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service staged one of the biggest investigations and sweeps of undocumented workers in the Los Angeles Apparel industry in March and April, leaving the industry reeling in the aftermath.

The investigations sparked a debate among manufacturers and contractors, who often fight a losing battle against the sophisticated network of fraudulent work-authorization documents, and industry leaders, who claim that they have been unfairly targeted.

Since the operation began in early March, the INS said it has formally reviewed the hiring records of some 75 garment-related businesses, which employ more than 7,000 workers. To date, according to the INS, its investigators have found potential problems with the work-authorization documents submitted by more than one-third of those workers.

The agency obtained warrants and investigated 10 companies, which subsequently fired a total of 1,061 workers based on suspicious or outright fraudulent work-authorization documents, according to Richard Rogers, Los Angeles INS district director. He noted that there were also 418 apprehensions.

Under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, employers who knowingly hire persons not authorized to work in the United States are subject to substantial fines.

The INS has not fined the employers but is continuing its investigation. Unless the agency can prove that the owners did not go through a due process to ferret out fake documents or that they knowingly hired undocumented workers, the manufacturers will not be fined, according to Rogers. Fines range from $250 to $2,000 per individual.

Steve Nutter, regional director of UNITE, pointed out that only one in seven workers was undocumented based on the INS survey.

“It’s significantly lower than most would have predicted,” Nutter said of the results.

He noted that the union has never been in favor of workplace surveys or raids. Even if they escape the fines, manufacturers still have the burden of replacing and training the lost employees, which can be costly.

“For the employers who were surveyed, it’s a significant threat because it is costly to replace workers,” Nutter said.

At Harkham Industries alone, INS agents arrested 75 undocumented workers in one sweep in late April.

Uri Harkham, owner of the company which makes Jonathan Martin dresses and sportswear, said that he had recently let go more than 150 workers after an INS audit of the firm’s employment records turned up questionable authorization documents.

Harkham told WWD shortly after the raid that he had a “rude awakening” because some of his workers were using false social security cards. But he stressed that he did not break the law.

He also chose to take part in the INS’s electronic verification program, which provides a swift and reliable means for employers to verify the work eligibility of their new hires.

Rogers said that there are currently only 300 employers across all industries in the state who are participating in the program.

At first glance, the verification program seems like the perfect solution for employers who are burdened with verifying their workers’ documents.

But at least one industry leader, Joe Rodriguez, executive director of the Garment Contractors Association, claimed that employers are reluctant to participate in such a program because of the agency’s use of strong-arm tactics in the past.

Although the INS hit two to three of his member contractors during the most recent round of sweeps and handled the investigations professionally, Rodriguez said that the agency’s reputation still lingers.

“They actually made appointments and did not come in unannounced or run a roughshod raid,” Rodriguez said. “But the baggage that the INS carries has employers leery of any contact.

“They (employers) have heard the story before: `I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,’ ” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez isn’t overly sympathetic, though. He said that the INS’s actions shed light on a much larger industry problem: piecework.

“With piecework we are not attracting legal, educated residents,” Rodriguez said.

He added that there is a definite shortage in legal, documented sewers in the industry, which is stunting the growth of many contracting shops.

“We have to draw from a new labor pool because the pool of immigrants has dried up,” he said.

Richard Reinis, executive director of Compliance Alliance, which represents more than 15 major manufacturers, said that the verification program is not accessible.

He noted that it is not offered in the diverse languages that comprise the industry.

“It also forces them to take an extra step and that is not an easy one to take,” Reinis said of manufacturers coming forward to use the program.

Echoing the views of many employers, Reinis argued that the 1986 Reform Act placed “an unreasonable burden on employers to become INS agents themselves and document experts.

“That legislation combined with the sophistication of illegal immigrants in obtaining (false) documents lends itself to a problem that is not easily solvable,” Reinis said.

He contended that the effort to lessen the industry’s attractiveness to immigrants has failed. “The vitality of the market is extremely strong despite the actions of the INS to reduce the magnetic appeal,” Reinis said.

He noted that the use of illegal immigrants is reprehensible and needs to be rooted out, but he said that manufacturers have taken steps to that end.

Lonnie Kane, president of Karen Kane Co., questioned the actions and timing of the INS.

“It seems small change to do raids in relation to what occurs at the border,” Kane said. The raids and investigations would be more understandable if unemployment was high and illegal workers were taking jobs away from qualified legal workers, he explained. While he denounced the use of illegal workers, he also denounced the INS’s recent actions. “With the sophistication and forgery of documents it’s extremely difficult to determine the validity of documents,” Kane said.

The INS would have a bigger impact with investments into more pilot programs than with raids, he added.

As a member of the California Fashion Association, which has a membership of 190 companies, Kane was surprised that he wasn’t aware of the INS verification program.

Although he has a system in place to detect forged documents, he said that it is inevitable that some will slip through undetected.

“Will we hire someone one day with forged documents?” he asked. “It is impossible not to.”

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