Feared Sweeps for Illegal Workers Found Just One

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

  • Corey Kilgannon
  • New York Times

To great fanfare in October 2006, Steve Levy, the Suffolk County executive, signed a new law requiring 6,000 contractors working for the county to affirm that their employees were not illegal immigrants, prompting fear of impromptu inspections and roundups of Hispanic men.

Since then, county officials have found exactly one worker without proper immigration documents, after conducting two sweeps of a total of 33 contractors last summer and fall. A second worker at the same construction company, North Star Concrete, was initially suspected, but the $9,500 fine regarding his status was dismissed when the company produced proper documentation.

"All that fuss over the need for this law and they only cite one guy?" complained Ricardo Montano, a Suffolk County legislator who opposed the initiative, officially called Local Law 52. "Where are all the illegal workers Steve Levy was talking about?"

Mr. Levy, a Democrat, has built a national reputation for taking a hard line against illegal immigration by proposing a bill to outlaw loitering by day laborers and bringing federal officials into the county jail to check inmates' immigration status. His spokesman, Mark Smith, said that the county never planned on widespread enforcement of the new law, and that the fact that only one undocumented worker had been found was testament to its power.

"It's really meant to keep the contractor honest as a deterrent approach, as the I.R.S. does with its audit process," Mr. Smith said. "Not everyone is going to get audited, and the vast majority is going to comply." He added, "We never had a predetermined number, that we were going to catch X number of people."

The owners of North Star, Mario and Abilio Salgado, declined to be interviewed for fear of further alienating county officials, and would not name the cited worker. Their lawyer, Robert J. LaReddola, said that he would continue to press the county's Labor Department to dismiss the remaining $9,500 fine, and that the company had paid all taxes and insurance for the employee, whom it hired through Laborers' Local 66, thinking he had a valid federal tax identification number and union card.

"This law is arbitrary and unfair and maybe unconstitutional," Mr. LaReddola said. "They're putting the fear of God into these men."

The case is being closely watched by both immigrant advocates and the construction industry, especially because the county Legislature is now considering a bill to expand the requirement to confirm workers' legal status to cover all 15,000 licensed contractors in Suffolk, not just those doing work for the government.

Introduced last month by Brian Beedenbender, a protégé of Mr. Levy's, the bill would carry stiffer penalties, including the loss of county licenses and up to four years in jail. It is scheduled for public hearings beginning March 4 and could come up for a vote by March 18.

Suffolk County is one of several municipalities nationwide to have experimented with such laws after seeing sharp increases in their Hispanic populations, which are often blamed for spikes in crime and overtaxed social services, schools, hospitals and jails.

Judges in Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma have recently turned back contractors' challenges of similar laws in those states, though earlier, a federal judge had blocked Hazleton, Pa., from enforcing a law barring businesses from hiring illegal immigrants and landlords from renting them rooms (the city is appealing the ruling).

Mayor Louis J. Barletta of Hazleton said that as soon as the laws were enacted there, "People were loading vans and trucks and literally leaving town in the middle of the night, so it would be fair to assume they were illegal."

"It's illegal to hire illegal aliens, so you have to go after the magnet: the businesses drawing them in," he said.

Mr. LaReddola, the North Star lawyer, says the Suffolk legislation had upset contractors, who were baffled by "a myriad of confusing immigration laws." In addition to making job estimates and calculating square footage, he says, contractors are now trying to brush up on the difference between a resident alien card and an alien registration card, and how an H-1B visa (for high-tech workers) differs from an H-2B visa (for temporary nonagricultural jobs) from an L-1 visa (usually for corporate employees).

"You're asking construction guys to do the work of attorney generals," he said, adding that a slip-up with one employee could ruin a company's reputation for years.

But Mr. Smith, the county spokesman, said the local law should change nothing for law-abiding contractors, since there has long been a federal law to similar effect: Section 1324a of Title 8 of the United States Code declares it unlawful to hire undocumented immigrants. Mr. Levy's "Affidavit of Compliance" simply has contractors swear to follow those laws "with respect to the alien and nationality status" of workers.

Mr. Levy created the law, Mr. Smith said, because the county could not get federal authorities to enforce their law; he feared that businesses hiring undocumented immigrants for low wages would undercut contractors who follow the law.

Mr. Smith said inspections had been limited so far to heavy construction companies, on the theory that they were more likely to hire illegal workers. No extra money has been allocated or task forces formed. Typically, a pair of officials - one from the county's Department of Labor and one from the Department of Public Works - has been sent to a construction site to see who is working and get a list of employees from the foreman, then to check workers' documents at the contractors' main offices.

North Star, which has 50 employees and is based in Farmingville, long a flashpoint of controversy over immigrant day laborers, was pouring concrete at the county Fire Academy in November when county officials showed up asking for papers.

Steve Flanagan, the business manager for Laborers' Local 66 in Melville, N.Y., said he could not immediately identify the North Star worker who was caught by the county.

But Mr. Flanagan said North Star brought several Hispanic workers to the hiring hall last summer, produced the Social Security cards and photo identification required for new union members, and promised to employ the men for two years and file their names with the Internal Revenue Service.

"North Star came in with paperwork and it looked legit - a Social Security number and a photo ID - and now they're trying to pin it on us?" Mr. Flanagan said.

Mr. Smith said that county officials had not yet decided whether to report illegal immigrants found during the inspections to federal authorities. (A separate Levy initiative authorized local police officers to report suspected illegal immigrants to federal immigration authorities .)

Mr. Beedenbender, the county legislator, said that if his law is approved, it would also be selectively enforced by current county officials, with more money and employees to be budgeted depending on the number of complaints about violators.

The proposal the law has the support of the Democratic majority in the county Legislature, but has drawn sharp rebukes from Mr. Montano and Vivian Viloria-Fisher, two Hispanic Democrats who have fallen out with Mr. Levy because of what Mr. Montano calls his "anti-Hispanic stance."

"These laws are all a public relations ploy playing to an anti-immigrant mentality," he said. "Steve Levy has used the community as political punching bag. He's alienated all the Hispanic leaders with his demagoguery. I'm Puerto Rican, so he can't deport me."


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