The INS is reportedly requiring local INS offices to warn employers before raiding them if they are suspected of employing illegal aliens "unknowingly." INS officers are also being required, under new rules, to obtain formal approval for raids from INS headquarters or regional offices, bring along "community liaison officers" and "avoid contentious circumstances" such as operations at restaurants during mealtimes.
The changes in INS enforcement tactics are reportedly in response to complaints to Attorney General Janet Reno about a raid in April on a Miami flower wholesaler. INS agents were accused of ordering some workers to sit on a wet floor, and holding others in a refrigerated room. Of the 22 workers detained, 11 were legal immigrants or eligible for work permits. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas denounced INS tactics during the raid.
The INS in mid-May apprehended 21 workers in southeastern Georgia, home of the $90 million a year Vidalia onion industry. Several of the 215 onion growers applied for H-2A workers in 1997, but withdrew their applications after DOL insisted that they would have to offer at least the prevailing wage of $0.80 per 50-pound bag of onions, while the growers insisted that $0.75 was the prevailing wage.
Vidalia onions are harvested in May and June by workers following a tractor-pulled harrow that loosens the ground. Workers pull the onions out of the ground, clip the stems and the roots, and then put them in 50-pound bags or into boxes. Yields average 300 bags an acre. The onions that are put into boxes are laid in bunches of four; 24 bunches are one box and the piecerate is about $3 a box.
The May 1998 raids were the first since 1995, when 178 unauthorized workers were detected. The 1995 raid reportedly did not decrease the hiring of illegal aliens because it occurred after the onions were harvested, but before some workers received final paychecks.
The 1998 raids produced letters from local Congressmen to INS that complained of an "apparent lack of regard for farmers in this situation...[the raids] threaten one of Georgia's most famous and economically valuable crops, Vidalia onions." Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA) complained of the INS's "indiscriminate and inappropriate use of extreme enforcement tactics against Vidalia area onion growers...[interfering with] honest farmers who are simply trying to get their products from the field to the marketplace."
The 1998 raids produced agreement that all farmers will participate in the INS Verification Pilot Program, they will provide the INS with the names of their farm labor contractors and they will permit the INS free access to check I-9 forms in their offices.
In return, the INS promised not to launch surprise inspections. Several papers called this an "amnesty" for illegal workers during the 1998 season, since unauthorized workers currently employed are able to work for the 1998 season without fear of INS activities if their photocopied documents on file with the employer appear to be genuine. Farmers estimate that up to half of the onion workers may be unauthorized, but they claim that all workers provided what appeared to be genuine documents.
Farm worker advocates complained that two worker protection standards--the promise to provide adequate housing for migrant workers in the 1999 season, and growers assuming liability for any violations committed by FLCs--were deleted from the agreement between the INS and growers.
All parties agreed that this was a temporary fix for the 1998 season. The head of the Vidalia Onion Council said that "the cure on this thing has got to come out of Washington." Growers are testing mechanical harvesters that are used in Texas and Europe; machines cost up to $100,000 each. One machine with five or six workers can harvest 15 acres a day; the equivalent of a crew of 60.
An estimated 10,000 workers are employed in the 14,000-acre Vidalia onion harvest, including 1,000 workers who work on the 2,600 acres of onions owned by Delbert Bland, who produces 20 percent of Vidalia onions. Bland uses 10 crew leaders to obtain workers, was sued by US Department of Labor in November 1994 for $1.6 million, and settled for $150,000. In 1995, Bland paid $40,000 to settle a suit by 15 migrants from Texas who alleged that a Bland crew leader promised them work and housing that did materialize when they got to Georgia. Most of the workers are brought from Texas to southeastern Georgia by farm labor contractors.
Amnesty International in May released a 56-page report that charged the US Border Patrol with a variety of human rights abuses, ranging from routine beatings to a faulty complaint process that often provides no complaint forms to migrants who need to use Spanish in making their cases. The report, "Human Rights Concerns in the Border Region with Mexico," was Amnesty's first major look at the US-Mexican border. The report is available at: http://www.amnesty.org/
Former US Attorney Alan Bersin estimated that 10 to 12 family-based smuggling rings are active on the US-Mexico border, including a notorious gang of Tijuana-based brothers. They use isolated ranches in Mexico as staging areas where hundreds of immigrants can be housed and fed until they are ready to be moved north. At the border, there is an "arms race" between the INS and the smugglers, with each side utilizing electronics and decoys to try to outsmart the other.
The INS has 35 checkpoints and 78 Border Patrol stations along the Mexico-US border, and is hiring 1,000 Border Patrol agents a year, with the goal of having 10,000 agents by 2002. Some 30,000 applicants took the Border Patrol exam in FY97, one-third passed, and 1,800 enrolled in the Border Patrol training academy. The average age of new agents is 27, and 25 percent of them have college degrees. Once hired, agents are on probation for 10 months.
INS apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants continue to make news across the US. The INS often finds groups of unauthorized foreigners and issues press releases that blame smugglers for putting migrants' lives at risk by sealing them in trucks. In Texas, large trucks are being used to move migrants from the Rio Grande Valley to Dallas and cities further north; migrants pay $500 each for trips in trucks that would cost $50 if they traveled by plane.
In May, the US embassy in Mexico issued a warning to Mexicans thinking of entering the US illegally that smugglers care only about their money, not their lives. The warning ended with the tag line: "It's not worth the risk to your life."
On May 1, the Kansas Highway Patrol found 30 suspected unauthorized aliens in a Ryder rental truck, notified the INS, and was told to order the driver to turn the truck around and head for Mexico, since the INS had insufficient resources to pick up the migrants or the driver.
In the Atwater Village of Los Angeles in May 1998, the INS broke up a counterfeit document operation, seizing more than 24,000 phony Social Security cards, sophisticated printing equipment and other materials. False document vendors operate openly on the streets of Los Angeles's immigrant neighborhoods, most notably near MacArthur Park, west of downtown.
In May, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner opposed a Republican proposal to divide up the agency, arguing that taking the agency apart "will only divide the problems, not solve them." The Clinton administration has proposed to separate the INS mission of enforcing federal immigration laws and from its function of granting benefits such as citizenship, but would keep the 29,000-person agency intact. Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) has proposed that current INS duties be divided among federal agencies as recommended in 1997 by the Commission on Immigration Reform.
William Branigin, "Criticism Prompts INS to Make New Rules For Work Site Raids; Some Fear Guidelines Will Limit Enforcement Capability," Washington Post, May 30, 1998. Nancy San Martin, "Ranks of border agents swell," Dallas Morning News, May 24, 1998. Sam Howe Verhovek, "Border Patrol is Criticized as Abusive," New York Times, May 21, 1998. Lori Henson, "Debate begins to fix migrant problems," Savannah Morning News, May 20, 1998. Jingle Davis, "Vidalia growers, INS near deal," Atlanta Journal, May 20, 1998. Peter Skerry and Stephen J. Rockwell, "The Cost of a Tighter Border: People-Smuggling Networks," Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1998.