Despite laws prohibiting employers from hiring illegal immigrants, recent estimates say there are thousands of them holding jobs in Northern Nevada.
Some employers say they don't have the training to spot the counterfeit Social Security cards or work permits illegal immigrants use to get hired. The government, however, points the finger squarely at the employers: either they are missing the signals, or they just don't care.
The construction industry hires many illegal workers, said Brian Kunzi, a director in the Nevada Attorney General's Office.
"You literally have places here where employers are just by the truckload every day picking up workers to take them to job sites. ... It's a major problem," he said. "You know they are undocumented and there is no effort from the employers to get documentation. They are being paid in cash."
Researchers from the Pew Hispanic Center estimate that nearly 10 percent of Nevada's work force consisted of illegal immigrants in 2004, more than double the national figure. With a statewide job base in 2004 of roughly 1.1 million workers, that means about 105,000 workers in Nevada were undocumented that year. Current estimates put the number of illegal workers nationwide as high as 12 million.
Rarely do those who employ these aliens get caught.
Nationwide, the 5,600 special agents with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigated 511 criminal work sites in the last fiscal year. Those cases resulted in 127 criminal convictions. From these cases, 980 people were arrested on administrative immigration violations.
As the Senate debates immigration reform, a nation is embroiled by the implications of changing a system that benefits some, hurts others and deeply divides Americans along racial, social and economic lines.
Employers say the immigrant work force is needed to take jobs Americans won't or can't fill. They worry over the unknown: if salaries will go up, if the needs of the craft industries will be met.
Critics say illegal immigrants are a drain on the economy and social systems, arguing that the illegal work force lowers wages and allows unfair competition against those employers who do follow the rules.
Rosa Garza, who often comes across illegal immigrants in her job as a credit counselor, said many of them assume they will always be needed in the United States. They don't realize changes may be coming.
"I've talked to some illegal aliens and asked them what they will do if they lose their job, and what chance they have of survival in a different country and the answer from one: 'I'm sure my employer will get rid of the people making double the money I am. I'm sure I'll be the last one they get rid of because I am cheap labor.'"
The counterfeiting problem
To work in the United States, a person needs a Social Security card, work visa, work permit or green card.
Counterfeit green cards and Social Security cards can be purchased in nearly every city in the country. They can be made with a home computer and printer, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"They will be convincing documents and they will go to the employer and show them," said Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman for the immigration agency. "The employer isn't necessarily going to spot that. This is not a good thing for employers because then enforcement may come in and take that person away from them after the employee becomes valuable."
Garza, a credit counselor with Citizens for Affordable Homes Inc., which is based in Dayton, said she's even heard of illegal immigrants using the Social Security numbers of their children born in the United States.
Many immigrants get jobs at construction companies, small landscaping companies or businesses owned by illegal immigrants.
It's up to U.S. employers to check the identity and work status of all employees using the I-9 form. The employee checks a box indicating their status - whether a citizen, green card resident or alien authorized to work - and the employer is supposed to verify the documents. That often doesn't happen, such as in the 2005 case of an illegal worker at The Ridge Tahoe resort in Stateline, said Kunzi, the director of the state attorney general's workers' compensation fraud unit.
The Douglas County business had a male employee with two Social Security numbers, one that belonged to a female. The numbers were found to have belonged to people who had died. The man admitted to investigators that he had purchased one of the Social Security numbers in Reno for $1,500. Over several months the man gave his employer the different numbers. The resort apparently did nothing, said Kunzi. The man was discovered because he filed a fraudulent workers' compensation claim.
"This case really illustrates to me where the problem really comes from, the employers," Kunzi said.
He said a significant number of illegal immigrants are filing workers' compensation claims with false Social Security numbers.
Some employers are proactive. They call immigration officials about suspicious Social Security numbers or use an independent company to verify employment status.
Others have never checked on a Social Security number, and if anything is wrong they expect to get a call from the IRS around tax time.
Determining the authenticity of a Social Security number- or even if the card is under the same name as the person who is carrying it - takes hours on the phone with the Social Security Administration, so many employers just assume the best.
"Getting through to Social Security is a joke," said Mark Lopiccolo, owner of Lopiccolo Construction of Carson City. He takes three forms of ID from his new employees and believes all of them are legit. "They're all State of Nevada licenses, and the Social Security cards look like a Social Security card. It's kind of a scary issue. I don't know for sure if anyone who works for me is illegal.
"Do I have to be the police?"
All of the smaller construction companies questioned for this story said they take the required I-9 information from employees. But none of them had ever checked a Social Security number or worker's ID.
To Tina Grefrath's knowledge, the Carson City Nevada JobConnect office has never sent an illegal worker out on a job. The center manager, who recently worked in the Carson City office and now works in Reno, said the job placement and enhancement center doesn't require I-9 forms, but it does check ID. She admits it's possible a counterfeit document could get past them. Legally, the I-9 forms are the employers' responsibility. It's their burden.
"One could be illegal and work for awhile and work with fake documents and leave the job before getting discovered," she said. "It does take time for these things to surface. At the point when this person gets discovered, they could've moved on to another job."
Ignoring the obvious?
If a business is operating lawfully - it should be able to tell if it is hiring illegal workers, said John Colledge, a Reno resident agent in charge of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Colledge said the excuses employers use don't mesh with reality. It's getting easier to check for counterfeit driver's licenses and work permits.
"There are mechanisms out there for people to research whether a document is authentic," he said. "There are services that employers can subscribe to. Credit bureaus will tell you if a Social Security number is real. LexisNexis can run a name and tell you if the identifying document comes back with a different name."
Richard Daly, business manager with Laborers Union Local 169, said they don't ask those who apply for membership whether they are legal or not. They do require a Social Security number, but he has heard of cases where multiple numbers turn up on forms. In those cases, the applicants are confronted and they either explain themselves or leave.
"We do not ask for discriminatory purposes," Daly said. "We won't ask because someone looks Hispanic. One time an employer asked us to, to shift the burden on us. We told them we cannot do it."
If the Social Security number is bogus or is being used by another person, the employer should hear from the IRS or the Social Security Administration, Colledge said.
"If employers are paying attention - and they certainly are paying attention if they are looking at their bottom line - then they would know," Colledge said. "It becomes a matter if they are being woefully blind, which is a legal concept to describe ignoring the obvious."
He said employing illegal immigrants is practicing unfair competition.
"It's a white collar criminal act and they're gambling when they do it," Colledge said. "You're gambling with your life. Because if you're convicted it's a felony charge. If you have a gaming license you will never again have one. If you have a business license, in some places, you may never again have one. You could go to jail."
But the chances that an immigration agent is going to bust the employer may be worth the risk of employing cheaper labor, or keeping a skilled worker.
"We don't see a real effort on the employer's part to get the documents as required, meaning for the I-9s," said Kunzi. "The employers want to use the undocumented workers. They know they are undocumented workers and they are obviously saving money by doing that. They are not paying the wages regular documented workers would be earning in this field."
Proposals for change
If immigration reforms are passed, employers may be forced to use a computer program that verifies the status of employees.
The Basic Employment Verification Pilot Program, offered at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site, is now voluntary. So far about 5,600 employers across the country have signed on to the program.
Lynn Mackey, office manager for Metcalf Builders, tried the program for the first time this week. Once their account is established, she will enter the names and ID numbers of new employees into the system.
If the numbers don't check out, the government informs the employer, who then informs the employee.
"Oftentimes that's the last they see of the employee, but that's OK because they can just hire the next person," said Rummery, immigration agency spokeswoman. "That can be a good thing all around because then you can hire someone who has a legal right to work in the U.S. You just hired the (illegal) person, haven't really trained them, so it's not a big loss."
Bill Miles, with Miles Brothers Construction of Carson City, said he would welcome a program that would allow his company to check out an employee.
"I think it would be great," he said. "Whenever we hire an employee we spend four to six hours of training time. I would welcome a place to check before we invest that time."
The immigrant population plays a large role in accomplishing the building industry's needs, said Rick DeMar, chief executive officer of the Builders Association of Western Nevada.
He estimates that half the building industry's work force is Hispanic.
"Whether they are legal or not, I don't know," he said.
DeMar said the labor pool issue disturbs him because it brings up so many questions. Will the absence of the illegal immigrant work force tremendously drive up salaries? To him, it's an aggravating question, because it must be asked, and the implication is considerable.
"Whether immigrants are legal or illegal, the important question is, how do we fulfill the needs of the industry,'" he said. "We certainly don't want to advocate breaking the law. However, this is an important question."
• Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1212.