Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Immigration plan worries some businesses. I was just very disappointed with the Highway Patrol -- that they would do that just on the basis of an anonymous phone call, with no evidence or anything.
Gov. Matt Blunt's crackdown on illegal immigration has not uncovered any major instances of contractors employing illegal immigrants. But it has stoked anxiety among business owners who worry that Hispanic employees might be targeted by law enforcement.
A high-profile immigration bust in this northeast Missouri town seems to mirror the broader crackdown on businesses. While the questioning of 19 Hispanic men only uncovered one illegal immigrant, the event further stoked fears that Blunt's policy might lead to racial profiling.
"There could be a chilling effect," said Jorge Riopedre, secretary of the St. Louis-area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "A company is not going to hire a Hispanic because they don't want to run any risk of going afoul of the government."
Blunt launched his two-pronged initiative in late August. He ordered Missouri Highway Patrol agents to check the immigration status of everyone presented for incarceration, and ordered the Missouri Department of Economic Development to check the immigration status of workers employed by contractors who get state incentives.
Blunt has said repeatedly his crackdown will not target Hispanics. Spokeswoman Jessica Robinson said the Department of Economic Development will make sure its policy won't amount to racial profiling when inspectors start visiting work sites.
"I understand that they will balance taxpayer protection with appropriate individual rights and protections," she said.
The patrol and other law enforcement agencies have identified 75 illegal immigrants that were taken into custody by Oct. 20, said Capt. Tim Hull. Over the weekend, 10 others were detained after a traffic stop in Warren County and are awaiting deportation. But the Department of Economic Development hasn't yet implemented its part of the initiative.
Spokesman Spence Jackson said the department is still drawing up a plan to train its inspectors in immigration law so they can spot-check employees when they make visits to work sites around the state.
In Hannibal, patrol agents visited the Continental Cement plant on Sept. 12 because of a tip that illegal immigrants were working on a construction project there. Continental Cement President Mike Johnson said the firm got no tax breaks or incentives for the construction project.
Johnson said patrol agents arrived at the site and asked to see the employees' immigration paperwork, even though they did not have a warrant.
The 19 men, all of them Hispanic, were detained at the work site while the patrol took down their names and birth dates. The information was passed on to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in St. Louis.
A patrol report on the incident said a man claiming to be a former employee of Continental Cement called State Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra and told her the company was employing illegal immigrants to help build a new $150 million kiln.
Bringer told The Associated Press that she passed on the man's complaint to patrol agents. She said she routinely passes on the concerns of her constituents, and that she herself was not filing a complaint against Continental.
ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said one worker was found to be in the country illegally after being deported earlier. He said ICE could not determine the immigration status for 15 of the men, meaning they were either legal residents of the United States or were illegal aliens who had never been arrested, which would have put their names in ICE's database.
Rusnok said ICE didn't investigate the matter further because there wasn't enough evidence of wrongdoing. The men worked for a subcontractor, Schueck Steel of Little Rock, Ark. The company refused to comment or let the employees be interviewed at the cement plant.
Johnson said the Hispanic employees felt intimidated -- some quit and found work elsewhere. He said he was frustrated to have his work site interrupted and is worried the same thing might happen again.
"I was just very disappointed with the Highway Patrol -- that they would do that just on the basis of an anonymous phone call, with no evidence or anything," Johnson said.
Riopedre said he is trying to arrange a meeting with Blunt's office to discuss ways that immigration law can be enforced without targeting Hispanics.
He said his chief concern is that business owners won't hire Hispanics, even if they present legal immigration documents.
Business owners might worry the paperwork is fake, and wouldn't know how to verify it.
"What kind of position is that putting the small business owner in Missouri (into)? We would say a very difficult one," he said