Card Sharps

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Of the $4.9 million in fines levied by the INS, only $2.5 million has been collected. The reason: When the INS busts an employer and takes away his illegal workforce, it usually drives him out of business and into bankruptcy. And despite its aging promise to reduce the number of passable documents from 27 to 14 two years ago, the INS still hasn't done so -- for reasons unexplained.

"Generally," the report concluded, "employers of unauthorized aliens have faced little likelihood that the INS would (1) investigate them, (2) prove that they knowingly hired unauthorized aliens, (3) collect fines, or (4) criminally prosecute them."

Finding an entity to investigate in Colorado isn't very hard, as the state has an estimated 80,000 employers. In 1998, the Denver INS field office investigated about fifty of them. One was prosecuted.

In October of that year, the INS raided Blue Mountain quarry in Lyons as part of Operation Stonewall. Mexican nationals are often hired on at quarries to do the difficult work of breaking and loading rocks. A Blue Mountain owner, who declined to identify himself, refused to talk about the raid, saying only, "It happened, we took care of it, and now we're moving on."

But the attorney who represented the quarry is still seething about the randomness of the enforcement. Daniel Sears, who has worked both as a federal prosecutor and as the state's first federal public defender, complains that he has never witnessed such a narrow display of justice. Blue Mountain sits among a field of other quarries in Boulder County, and competition is fierce. Competitors sabotage one another by calling the INS and claiming that their foe is hiring illegal workers and subjecting them to horrific working conditions at meager wages. Such tactics are a hazard of the industry, Sears says.

Court documents show that when the Blue Mountain raid occurred, INS agents hauled off six illegal workers. All of the men had bogus or expired documents. For this, Blue Mountain was charged with harboring illegal aliens. Through Sears, the company pleaded guilty, agreeing to pay the government $150,000 and accepting a five-year probation with random visits from the INS.

"I don't have a problem with the government investigating to see if there is a problem with the industry as a whole," says Sears. "In reality, the INS simply doesn't have the resources to detect all of the illegal workers in all jobs -- agriculture, construction, whatever. But Blue Mountain was singled out, and no other business up there has been put to a similar scrutiny. The explanation I was given was simply that the INS didn't have the resources to scrutinize everyone equally -- and I have a problem with that."

Conditions could deteriorate further. Now that Colorado's unemployment rate has dipped below 2.5 percent and flirts with 2 percent on a monthly basis, jobs are in heavy supply. And when the jobs are plentiful, the number of immigrants increases. According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national nonprofit group that believes immigration should be "reduced to more historic levels," Colorado's immigrant population has climbed 136 percent since 1990.

FAIR spokesman David Ray asserts that the INS's inability to stop Social Security and green-card fraud only exacerbates immigration levels. "Employers are never going to reach out to the disadvantaged and poor citizens here in this country when they can freely hire illegal aliens with fake documents. As long as that continues, employers can secure docile workers who can't bargain for better working conditions or better pay because they know they are here illegally."

Adds Ray, "The scarier problem to this is the proliferation of illegal Social Security numbers being taken. It's utterly simple for illegal immigrants to get [Social Security] numbers, get a driver's license and become eligible to vote because of the motor-voter law. When we allow illegal aliens to come in, obtain false documents and then allow them to vote, that's a total breakdown of democracy."

Yet, even as pressures mount, there's still little to discourage employers from hiring illegal workers.

"The reality," Sears argues, "is that if they were to rely on Anglo employees, the product wouldn't be as good. Whether it's right or wrong, Mexican nationals are coming across the border because they are deprived, want to work, and will work. How the INS handles this problem is up to them. But right now, they deal with it in a very myopic fashion."

Jeffery Lembke has known for years that Zuni Plaza was the base for unbridled green-card selling. Lembke, an investigator with the INS, confirms that unlawful dealings at the coin-operated business have been common knowledge at the "local, state and federal" levels. Nonetheless, he says, "until now, they've been operating without the fear of getting caught."

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Justin Berton