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Immigration Reform Has Industry on Edge

The red-hot debate on immigration isn't new to U.S. apparel manufacturing, which has dealt with the issue of undocumented workers for years.

WASHINGTON — Domestic apparel manufacturing and retailing is in the eye of the storm over immigration policy that is being played out on Capitol Hill and across the U.S.

Unionized industry workers were among the hundreds of thousands who marched on Monday in more than 100 cities and towns — from New York to Los Angeles and places like Tyler, Tex., and Garden City, Kansas — urging U.S. citizenship for an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants.

The number of undocumented workers in the industry is difficult to assess because neither watchdog organizations that advocate for them nor many state governments, including California’s, have specific employment statistics. However, it is clear that an overhaul in U.S. immigration law being considered by Congress could make sweeping changes in the way apparel manufacturers and retailers deal with employees who are in this country illegally.

The House passed a bill in December that focused on enforcement of immigration laws and, if signed into law, would make it a felony to be in the country without documentation. The Senate reached an impasse on its own immigration legislation on Friday, setting the stage for a potential showdown over a proposed guest-worker program when Congress returns from a two-week recess on April 24.

California, with its comparatively large apparel manufacturing base and its proximity to Mexico, is on the leading edge of the issue.

“For anyone in the apparel industry not to get behind some form of legalization for these workers is to not support the people within your own industry,” said Dov Charney, founder of American Apparel in Los Angeles and a green-card carrying immigrant from Canada. “It’s to cut your nose off to spite your face.”

The National Retail Federation does not have an official position on the immigration issue, but the organization is wary of a provision in the House bill that might force companies to verify the status of their employees, said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations. “They need to be mindful of overly burdensome requirements on employers,” he said.

May Y. Chen, international vice president of the UNITE HERE union, which represents apparel, textile, retail, hotel and restaurant workers, said thousands of the union’s members came out of the shadows under a 1986 legalization program, and she characterized this as a “dangerous” period.

“We stand at this really dangerous moment in time where something really Draconian could happen, making immigrants” a target “for all people’s problems when really these people are here to contribute,” said Chen, who is also manager of Local 23-35, representing garment workers in New York. She was among those rallying on Monday, many of whom held signs that read “We Are America,” “Immigrant Values are Family Values,” and “Legalize Don’t Criminalize,” among other slogans.

There are concerns that undocumented workers depress wages and other labor standards. Publicized raids in the Nineties, when illegal immigrants were found in virtual servitude in factories in El Monte, Calif., and during sweeps of factories in New York by the Immigration & Naturalization Service, shone a harsh light on industry practices.

Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association, said scrutiny by the government has increased awareness in the apparel industry.

“The garment industry in Los Angeles has had to jump through hoops for a long time,” Metchek said. “The Department of Labor Standards Enforcement comes in all the time to check that people are being paid minimum wage. You must have a file for each employee with their documentation.”

State labor laws “is applied to all workers in California without regard to residency,” said Dean Fryer, the San Francisco-based spokesman for California’s Department of Industrial Relations, adding that anyone who works in California must be paid at least the minimum wage of $6.75 per hour.

Workers’ rights groups said the immigrants generally work in the service sector where wages are low. In addition to apparel manufacturing, these businesses include restaurants, supermarkets, construction companies, farms and janitorial services. The hourly wages can range from $1.25 to $10. For the most part, the immigrants earn less than California’s hourly minimum wage, the watchdog groups said.

Xiomara Corpeno, organizing director for Los Angeles’ Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, said of the all undocumented people living in the U.S., three million are under the age of 18.

“It’s going to be a long struggle,” Corpeno said of the plans to reform the immigration laws. “We need to institute legalization programs with a path to citizenship and we need to make sure there is something for the future.”

Kimi Lee, director of the Garment Worker Center in Los Angeles, estimated that there are more than two million undocumented workers in Los Angeles County. She said growing competition from foreign manufacturers has led to worsening conditions in domestic factories.

“Because the factories are trying to compete with low wages in other countries, they push to have lower and lower wages [here],” she said.

As a result, the so-called underground economy, where workers are paid off the books, employs between 10,000 and 20,000 people in Los Angeles, some of whom hold legal papers, she estimated.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in an opinion column in Monday’s Wall Street Journal urged Congress to “agree on legislation based on a simple philosophy: control of the border … and compassion for the immigrants.” He said “a compassionate immigration policy will acknowledge that immigrants are just like us: they’re moms and dads looking for work, wanting to provide for their kids. Any measure that punishes charities and individuals who comfort and help immigrants is not only unnecessary, but un-American.”

Illegal immigration also affects retailers. Last year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. agreed to pay $11 million to settle federal allegations that subcontractors used hundreds of illegal immigrants to clean its stores. The retailer also acknowledged had inadequate internal compliance programs.

A Wal-Mart spokesman said its workers have to complete a form that indicates legal residency.

“The issue is across the board,” the spokesman said. “It’s a policy we take seriously across the board. It’s not geographically because you’ll find large numbers of immigrants in every state and, of course, we have operations in every state.”

The Senate on Friday failed to pass two motions limiting debate on the underlying border security bill and on a comprehensive compromise proposal that would have created a temporary guest-worker program, tightened border security and established procedures for the illegal immigrants who live and work here to earn citizenship. If the Senate finds a way to break the impasse, a much larger battle looms in reconciling the bill with a version passed by the House.

“Obviously, we’ve got to secure the border and enforce the law,” said President Bush Monday. Bush has been pressing Congress to pass a temporary worker program, giving some legal status to illegal immigrants. “But one way to do so is to make sure that people who are coming in here to work have a legal … get a card so they don’t have to try to sneak across the border, which takes pressure off our border.”

But House Republicans don’t appear to be backing away from their bill, which focuses on border security and enforcement. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) rejected the Senate’s efforts to establish a guest-worker program Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” program, which squarely pits him against the President.

“You can’t begin to talk about a guest-worker bill until you secure the borders,” Boehner said. “You have to remember that illegal immigrants are just that — illegal. Until we begin to secure our borders and enforce immigration laws, I don’t think we can begin talking about a more comprehensive approach.”

However, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who appeared on “Fox News Sunday,” struck a more conciliatory note.

“I think when we come back from recess, we’ll get a bill,” said Specter. “And when we get to the House, Speaker [Dennis] Hastert has signified his willingness to consider a guest-worker program.”

More enforcement is not the answer, said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO.

“If anything, stronger enforcement has only pushed people further into the shadows of society and allowed for even greater exploitation in the workplace,” she said. “A realistic reform would have to include a path to legalization for these workers that are here.”

Some sluggishness on the employment front over the last five years has helped to bring the influx of immigrants to the fore, said Harry Holzer, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University.

“When the labor market was really strong in the second half of the 1990s, I don’t think people cared as much because there were jobs for everybody,” he said.

With contributions from Emili Vesilind and Khanh T.L. Tran, Los Angeles, and Sharon Edelson, New York