Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Labor Department elaborated on their plans Tuesday to team up in the battle against low-paying employers who hire undocumented workers — and the agencies again listed garment contractors as one arena they’ll be targeting.
The new two-agency strategy was unveiled Monday in President Clinton’s budget for fiscal 1996, and implementation will largely be contingent on Congress approving funds. On Tuesday, Clinton underscored the need for this by signing an executive order directing federal agencies to give priority to stopping illegal immigration.
To this end, the proposed budget seeks an additional $1 billion for INS, part of which would be used to increase to 865 from 735 the number of INS investigators who visit companies and otherwise verify employment documents. The additional funding would hike the INS budget to $2.6 billion.
“As long as they get hired when they enter the U.S., it sends a message, ‘It’s OK to enter the U.S.,”‘ said INS Commissioner Doris Meissner at a news conference.
As reported, the Clinton budget also proposes to increase the number of Labor investigators who police businesses for wage and overtime violations. A $10.7 million request would add 202 workers to the 800-employee Wage and Hour division, which has been targeting the garment, agriculture, hotel/motel and restaurant industries for more than two years.
By enforcing wage and hour laws, Labor officials hope to reduce the incentive for employers to hire undocumented workers who are eager to work for sub-minimum wages, said Maria Echaveste, administrator of the Wage and Hour Division. Illegal immigrants “take work under some of the most unbelievable conditions,” she said. Until now, she said, “policy consideration between employment and immigration has been lost in the debate.”
Under the joint initiative, INS will more closely follow Labor investigators’ reports of businesses not verifying workers’ status for employment. Such violations are frequently uncovered in the garment contracting industry, particularly in California, say investigators. All employers are required to have for each employee an INSI-9 form that stipulates ability to hold a job in the U.S.
Meissner acknowledged that because of the lack of a computer hook-up between the INS and Labor, immigration authorities haven’t been efficient in handling these tips. As part of their routine, Labor investigators looking into wage and hour violations also check for the presence of I-9 forms, but their authority over enforcing immigration violations ends there.
“The reality is that the I-9 forms are sent to INS officers on a slip of paper,” Meissner said, estimating that 20 to 30 percent of all I-9 violations unearthed by Labor are now investigated. “Both of our agencies have been hobbling along with 1980s technology.”
As part of its technological push, INS wants Congress to fund a $28 million information system that would include matching immigration databases with those of the Social Security Administration and to expand its pilot project for electronically verifying employment status of workers.
The pilot was launched last year with nine firms and there are plans to expand it to 200 this year. If Congress continues funding, INS hopes to extend the program to between 700 and 1,000 companies in 1996. The agency also wants to strengthen enforcement at the Mexican border, among other initiatives. — Fairchild News Service