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Immigrant dilemma

Recent debate over the status of illegal workers highlights the bind their employers find themselves in.

By JOSEPH DITS Tribune Staff Writer

Talk about illegal workers? Local employers would rather not. After all, many feel as if they are caught in a system that leaves their doors open to illegal workers.

They must check documents. But, check too much and you face charges of discrimination, some say.

"It is too hard to check if they are legal," said John Prough, personnel manager for Gleason Industrial Products in Goshen. "It leaves you in a bad position."

This dilemma is one part of a complex soup of immigration issues that President Bush and Congress want to start changing.

Mexican President Vicente Fox will visit Washington, D.C., this week to urge an amnesty for undocumented Mexicans who are living and working in the United States. One bargaining chip is his effort to beef up security on Mexico's border.

Republicans and Democrats have jumped into the debate and have talked about revising a temporary work pass. Several questions remain: Would new rules apply only to Mexicans, or to other Latin nationalities, too? What time limits and procedures?

Whatever happens, it will affect a worker-hungry job scene in Michiana that stimulated the rapid growth in the area's Latino population in the past 10 years. The area has employed migrant farm workers for decades. But more have been settling down in recent years as they fill the need for year-round employment at factories in St. Joseph and Elkhart counties.

'Untenable position'

Gleason was one of a handful of factories that agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided in 1996, deporting dozens of illegal workers. Since then, the company hasn't changed its procedures. It was doing everything correctly in the first place, Prough said. The INS also has backed off on local raids.

Prough noticed only a few immigrants in the plant when he started working at Gleason 21 years ago, then an increase in their numbers eight to 10 years ago. They're among the 150 workers that help to make two-wheel handcarts.

"Most of them, like the ones I hire, are very good employees, dependable," he said. And there's been a demand for them, even if the recently weakened economy has slowed down the hiring: "Last year at this time, you just couldn't find people (to hire)."

As for the regulations on checking documents, he said, "I think the government needs to do something -- something. I don't know the answers."

Craig Anderson is a labor specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau who counsels farmers on government and regulations. He describes the dilemma like this:

Let's say you're a farmer. A migrant worker offers you a stack of identification cards that you may need to hire him by law. You check his driver's license because you may need him to drive. You check the worker's permit. Then you go for the Social Security card because you want to check the number on his application. Taking that third card would make you guilty of "document discrimination," since you're entitled to see only two forms of identification, Anderson said.

So, you send the federal form to the government with a number that you can only assume is right, Anderson says. Then the Social Security Administration sends you a letter saying that the number doesn't match the person. You go back to the employee to see what the mistake was. If you suspect the worker is illegal and fire him, you could be violating equal employment laws, Anderson said.

"You've placed us in an untenable position," he said.

Another dilemma arises when a worker -- a good and loyal one -- asks a farmer to sign an application for legal status, Anderson said. The worker is essentially admitting that he isn't legal. The farmer has to fire him if he's going to help, so that the farmer avoids violating the law.

So much media attention has focused on the illegal worker debate of "Do we want 'em or don't we want 'em?" Anderson said. "The reality is: They're already here."

Stay north or not?

Mary Ann Creighton would like to see a simplified process for immigrants to become legal. She's the human resources director for the Accra Pac factory in Elkhart, where she's heard many a story about a "laborious" and "expensive" process. It can take a year before someone is ready to work, she said.

"It limits our hiring," Creighton said. "I'm not saying I want to allow every immigrant in the U.S. to work."

Accra Pac hires an ethnic mix for its production work force of about 200 employees that, along with Latinos, includes people from Laos, India and Africa, she said. It has been that way in the six years she has worked there.

The current situation only promotes an illegal population, argues Jorge Chapa, director of Latino studies at Indiana University in Bloomington.

"Strict enforcement of the borders has turned temporary migrants into permanent ones," he said. "An illegal worker faces serious life-and-death consequences if he or she chooses to cross the border numerous times. Once they get into the United States, they are reluctant to leave. Also, employer sanctions for using illegal laborers are rarely enforced."

He also believes that employers are playing a much more active role in drawing immigrants across the border than they once did. It may not be as blatant as a few years ago when, according to local stories, a billboard on the Mexican border advertised jobs in Goshen. Chapa said the marketing may be more of "a wink and a nod" to current employees, as if to say, "Anyone else like you?"

"Without the employer, the degree of immigration would be a lot less," he said.

Farmers throughout Indiana are trying to figure out how to attract migrant workers, which farmers here in the north have done for decades, said Kent Yeager, director of government relations for the Indiana Farm Bureau. Farmers can no longer turn to local youths for the low-paid physical labor, and domestic workers find better opportunities elsewhere, Yeager said.

Be our 'guest'

One of the options on the political table now is to revise the current "guest worker" program. Some farmers find the program so restrictive and confusing that it gets them into trouble, Anderson said.

The visa applies to several different fields of work but is most restrictive in agriculture, he said. It applies to specific job titles. A worker on a Christmas tree farm can harvest the trees, but, when snowy weather prohibits that, he can't come inside the barn to convert misshapen trees into wreaths. Making wreaths isn't considered farm work.

A revised program should include some stipulation that workers stay on a job for a minimum amount of time, said Rick Olivarez, the monitor and advocate for Michigan's farm worker program.

That would guarantee that workers don't leave while the farms still need them. But the minimum shouldn't be so long that it becomes impossible for workers to acquire the work pass, Olivarez said.

"It's got to be a fair playing field where it benefits the growers and is also beneficial to workers," he said.

Under a bill introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., workers would earn immigrant status by working at least 90 days over the next three to four years.

Indiana University's Chapa believes guest-worker programs lead to the exploitation of the workers. He said studies of the program in the United States and Europe have shown that it only promotes further migration.

The words "guest worker" also bring back unhappy memories of a similar "bracero" program that lasted until 1962, said Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Among other things, workers had trouble getting paid, he said.

Immigration isn't just a federal issue.

The state of Indiana changed its requirements for gaining a driver's license after a group of Latino leaders complained. Residents were having trouble gaining a license since they didn't have all of their documents in order, said Pat Rios, who focuses on Latino issues in Gov. Frank O'Bannon's office.

Now the system allows residents to provide a mix of different documents. If people are working here -- illegally or not -- they need to drive, Rios said. Besides, it's the job of the INS and not the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to check for legal status, she added.

The state of Michigan has boosted spending on migrant housing from $500,000 to $950,000, Olivarez said.

He's developed a Web site so that migrants can scout out the opportunities for work, housing and services before driving up here. He hopes that it saves the migrants time otherwise wasted by searching around. The site, at, will include Spanish translations in another month, he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, September 02, 2001


There are too many dilemmi (sic) in this article. I'm not sure I saw the first one but the bottom line is these guys want cheap labor. No nation benefits from cheap labor.

-- David Williams (, September 03, 2001.

Commercial agrilculture depends on cheap labor. The work used to be done by a large family. Now its done by hired hands. The prices we pay for our food do not support wages of $12.00+/ hour.

-- John Littmann (, September 03, 2001.

My grandmother had 13 kids and lived on a farm. One reason they had so many kids was to work the farm. In other words, the kids were slaves until they were old enough to run away which is what happen in this case. My dad ran away to join the Navy in War II even though he was under age. Anything beat living on that farm. Both sides of the family lived in poverty. Americans want the cheap food but do not want to pay laborers. What happens when the people from south of the border decide the work is to hard for the money? And when these people are to old to work, Social Security will have to provide benefits. So people enjoy cheap food today but wait until the medical bills and Social Security benefits kick in.

-- David Williams (, September 04, 2001.

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