Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON--Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, acknowledged Tuesday that the agency was having difficulty policing the Los Angeles garment industry for undocumented workers and said congressional passage of funds to hire more INS workers is crucial to enforcement efforts.
Meissner's comments came during a news conference to discuss INS efforts in six Southern states since June. With 100 INS and Labor Department inspectors, Operation SouthPAW (Protecting America's Workers) has targeted industries in those states deemed to employ undocumented workers.
SouthPAW, considered the INS's largest employment-based effort to date, did not include apparel or textile plants, but Meissner said the agency wants to extend similar efforts to other industries, citing the garment industry in Los Angeles as a good candidate.
When asked how the agency's enforcement efforts have changed in Los Angeles following the Aug. 2 discovery of some 70 illegal Thai immigrants working in a prison-like sweatshop in El Monte, Calif., Meissner said investigators are "in a heightened state of awareness."
"We are looking very carefully at whatever information we have," she said. "The situation in Los Angeles, in the garment industry in particular, has always been a very high-priority concern for us."
The INS has been accused by California Gov. Pete Wilson of allowing the El Monte sweatshop to go undetected for years.
Release of results from the agency's SouthPAW effort comes at a time when the INS is seeking a $1 billion increase in its budget, part of which would be used to increase to 865 from 735 the number of INS investigators who visit companies. The additional funds have already been approved by the House.
"We have had very frugal resources," Meissner said, regarding enforcement in the Los Angeles garment industry. "But with huge resource infusions coming next year we will be able to have a great deal more pressure on those kinds of situations."
In the SouthPAW program, the INS said, officials arrested 4,044 illegal workers at 300 businesses during a total of 31 days of sweeps. The jobs were then filled with 2,400 legal workers receiving a total of $55.7 million in gross annual salaries.
-- Fairchild News Service

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