Howard raid points to a bigger issue

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Published: September 1,2008

Last week’s raid on Howard Industries in Laurel that netted 595 arrests of suspected illegal immigrants is the largest in U.S. history.

US. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents descended on the electric transformer manufacturer August 25. They executed a civil search warrant for workers ICE said were in the U.S. illegally and investigated claims of aggravated identity theft and fraudulent use of Social Security numbers.

Of the 595 initially taken into custody, 106 were deemed eligible for what ICE called “an alternative to detention based on humanitarian reasons.” They will still appear before a federal judge who will determine whether they will be deported.

As a result of the raid, eight criminal cases have been sent to the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of Mississippi for prosecution. The criminal cases center around charges of aggravated identity theft. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will handle the other cases. The eight facing charges of identity theft have been denied bond.

“(The raid) is part of ICE’s ongoing effort to shut down the employment magnet fueling illegal immigration. We are committed to strengthening the integrity of our nation’s immigration system,” said Michael Holt, ICE special agent in charge of the office of investigations in New Orleans. “Identify theft is a growing problem in the United States, and the Department of Justice has prioritized bringing perpetrators of these crimes to justice and protecting the interests of innocent victims.” Those arrested include people from Germany, Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Honduras and Brazil.

Of those arrested, 475 were sent to an ICE facility in Jena, La. Those charged with aggravated identity theft remain in the custody of U.S. Marshals. Nine juveniles were transferred into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

“Howard Industries runs every check allowed to ascertain the immigration status of all applicants for jobs,” a company press release said. “It is company policy that it hires only U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.” A Howard spokeswoman said the company would have no further comment. The plant remains open. No Howard executives were arrested during the raid.

Howard Industries was founded in 1968 and manufactures power, lighting and technology products. The company has approximately 4,200 employees in Mississippi.

Illegal immigrants in the workplace received a lot of attention during the last legislative session. Lawmakers eventually passed a bill requiring businesses to document their workers through e-Verify, a federal database that validates or invalidates a Social Security number. The law took effect in July for companies with state contracts. It will take effect for all other businesses in January. The bill had the support of several business groups and trade associations.

Tupelo-based immigration law attorney Gabriela Ungo said companies should routinely check and re-check their workers’ documentation.

“Companies can alleviate worksite investigations concerns, if they take preventative measures. For example, businesses should be meticulous with their hiring practices, specifically with Form I-9 completion and verification process,” Ungo said. “We highly advise conducting regular internal Form I-9 compliance audits where numerous paperwork violations are generally found, and developing a business immigration compliance program.

“It is better to be safe than sorry. Many employers are naïve and fail to understand the seriousness of the penalties. ICE is bringing serious criminal charges as predicate for immigration employment verification violations. At a corporate level, tough criminal charges like ‘harboring illegal aliens for profit and money laundering,’ for example, are being brought against a broad array of persons: business owners, HR specialists and corporate executives. Also, even when the employer does not actually know that an employee lacks legal status, an employer cannot intentionally fail to make inquiries if the employer has information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the worker might lack status.”

The politics of illegal immigration also play also a role. The issue is hotly debated in elections from the local to the federal level. But so far, no legislation with substance has cleared Congress. Combine that with an ICE targeting that can sometimes seem arbitrary, and it leaves a tangled political mess.

“Employing undocumented workers is a violation of the law, but the government’s enforcement-only approach hurts families, communities and businesses,” Ungo said. “During a raid, workers are handcuffed, detained and treated like criminals. Many of these workers are married to a U.S. citizen and have U.S. citizen children. It is inhumane, to punish somebody with imprisonment for just trying to support their families.

“The dysfunction of our immigration laws and Congress’ inability to achieve an effective reform are, in principle, the root of the problem. The current archaic immigration law provides an ineffective and inadequate legal avenue for employers willing to hire less-skilled workers, who are key to industries like agriculture, construction, service and hospitality. Most employers seeking services from this labor category would comply to legal hiring and recruitment practices but for the limited, near non-existent availability of visas. Undocumented workers have, therefore, supplied the demand for this labor.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .

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