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ICE Turns To Terrorism In The Workplace
Date 08/05/18/13:18

Immigration enforcement in California turns focus to the workplace
By Susan Ferriss -

Published 12:00 am PDT Saturday, May 17, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1

IT DIDN'T TAKE long for the remaining El Balazo workers to mobilize after the immigration raids.

True to the taqueria chain's name the Speedy Bullet all 11 Bay Area restaurants were up and running just days after agents burst in May 2 and took away 63 employees.

"They took the whole morning crew," said Irma Sanchez, a cook at El Balazo's busy Haight Street taco shop in San Francisco. She tightened her lips to show she had nothing to add, and resumed breaking green beans for vegetarian burritos.

From dishwashers to executives, news of the raid on the trendy taquerias has California industries on edge.

For two decades, since Congress passed the last big immigration overhaul, workplace enforcement has been so rare in California, nobody seems to recall the last time a raid of such magnitude hit an eatery.

Federal immigration officials confirm they have increased their raids. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said its overall arrests mostly administrative citations for undocumented workers went up tenfold between 2002 and 2007.

Bay Area leaders and others question how the raids will solve an ingrained problem born from a U.S. appetite for labor as much as a foreign hunger to work.

"It's kind of like Prohibition," said Trish Platt after a recent meal at El Balazo in Concord. "I grew up in the military, and I kind of have a world view."

Of the workers, she said: "If you were those people, what would you do?"

Customer Alexandra Zapata wondered why El Balazo was a target. "They could go across the street and do it there, or there," she said, pointing at other businesses.

After years of hoping Congress would approve a program for some undocumented workers to earn legal status, many in California's large Latino and immigrant population are protesting the ICE raids.

Most actions, they say, appear to round up those in kitchens or on assembly lines, while those in offices get a de-facto amnesty.

Last year, more than 4,000 "administrative arrests," non-criminal arrests, were made of illegal immigrants. ICE arrested 92 employers or supervisors on criminal charges.

"Latinos are being pulled out of places, and we're wondering what's going on. What's the administration's intent?" said Eric Vega, a member of the Sacramento Latino Network. The group plans a "Know Your Rights" event at the state Capitol today.

Enforcement first

After a 1986 legal overhaul, immigration enforcement was shifted to the border, and agents were required to obtain warrants to raid a work site, or an owner's consent to enter.

Until recently, California has seen relatively little action compared with other states.

California is believed to be home to at least one-third of all undocumented workers in the United States. Yet most high-profile food industry raids have been in the South, the East and the Midwest.

Last year, ICE agents busted dozens of janitors in Southern California in a 16-state sting. This year they seized workers at Los Angeles-area warehouses and a printer cartridge factory.

On Thursday, agents hit another eatery, a San Diego-area French bakery.

Jennifer Chacon, an immigration law specialist with the University of California, Davis, suggested that sensitivity to California's reliance on undocumented workers may have shielded it from more raids up to now.

"ICE has a dilemma," Chacon said, because of the Bush administration's conflicting signals on immigration.

President Bush was once a strong voice urging "comprehensive" legal change: enforcement, but also a new way for employers to sponsor foreign workers and for those already here to earn legal work status.

Now the administration wants to look as though its priority is enforcement first, Chacon said.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said she couldn't discuss the genesis of the El Balazo raid, only that it was part of an ongoing criminal investigation and carried out with a sealed warrant.

In March 2007, the Internal Revenue Service raided El Balazo, also with a sealed warrant, but Kice wouldn't say if that raid led to ICE's action.

El Balazo owner Merino Sandoval declined to comment.

The documentation game

Business groups admit some employers knowingly hire and exploit illegal immigrants. But they also say fake documents make it hard for employers to tell if an employee is authorized to work.

For 22 years, federal law hasn't required employers to authenticate documents, just keep data on those documents on file.

Recently, immigration officials began to offer employers a voluntary, experimental database to cross-check documents via computer. Employers can't use it, though, to screen workers already on payrolls.

Kevin Westlye, executive director of San Francisco's Golden Gate Restaurant Association, said trying to deport or frighten all undocumented workers into leaving isn't going to work. If it did, he said, "it certainly would have an impact on the economy."

Kice said ICE's mission right now is to narrow its hunt for immigration violators by following tips on employers suspected of enabling the use of fake documents, dodging taxes or committing labor violations.

But nailing a boss who is a "bad actor," Kice said, can take months, even years.

Last October, ICE raided 11 McDonald's in Reno and detained more than 50 workers as part of an investigation into document fraud.

Most workers were released from detention for humanitarian reasons, including to care for children while waiting for immigration hearings.

The owner of the McDonald's franchises has not been charged, and the investigation continues.

Most El Balazo workers also were released for humanitarian reasons and are wearing electronic monitors to ensure they don't disappear.


* Call The Bee's Susan Ferriss, (916) 321-1267.

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