- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

SASABE, Mexico — A growing number of U.S. employers in need of cheap labor are turning to illegal workers to recruit friends and relatives back home, and to smugglers to find job seekers.

“It continues to become clear who controls immigration: It’s not governments, but rather the market,” said Jorge Santibanez, director of the Tijuana think tank Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

When Pedro Lopez Vazquez crossed illegally into the United States last week, he already had a job.

His future employer even paid $1,000 for a smuggler to help Mr. Vazquez make his way from the central Mexican city of Puebla to Aspen, Colo.

“We’re going to Colorado to work in carpentry because we have a friend who was going to give us a job,” Mr. Vazquez said.

Mr. Vazquez, 41, was interviewed along the Arizona border after being deported twice by the U.S. Border Patrol. He said he would keep trying until he got to Aspen.

His story is not unusual.

Darcy Tromanhauser of the nonprofit law project Nebraska Appleseed said companies in need of workers rely on the underground employment networks to “pass along the information more effectively than billboards.”

“It started out more explicitly, where [meatpacking] companies used to have buses to transport people to come up, and they would advertise directly in Mexico,” she said. “Now I think that happens more informally.”

At the same time, it has become less risky for companies to recruit illegal aliens. Since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, U.S. prosecution of employers who hire such workers has dwindled to a trickle as the government puts its resources toward national security.

The few cases that are prosecuted, however, highlight how lucrative a business recruiting undocumented workers has become.

In one case, a single smuggler purportedly earned $900,000 over 15 months placing 6,000 migrants in jobs at Chinese restaurants across the upper Midwest.

Shan Wei Yu, a 51-year-old Chinese-American, was sentenced in December to nine years in federal prison on charges involving the transportation of 40 of those migrants. Investigations involving the others continue.

Rick Hilzendager, special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Grand Forks, N.D., said Yu connected 6,000 migrants from Latin America with jobs in Chinese restaurants in Illinois, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Based in Yu’s home in McKinney, Texas, the Great Texas Employment Agency placed ads in Chinese-language newspapers in the Chicago area offering cheap labor from Latin America, investigators said.

Yu sent a recruiter with Spanish interpreters to find illegal aliens in Dallas willing to be fry cooks and dishwashers, Mr. Hilzendager said. A team made up mostly of illegal Chinese aliens rented cars and drove them up.

Yu charged a $150 finder’s fee for each illegal while the drivers earned $300 per worker. Restaurant owners deducted the $450 from workers’ first-month paychecks of $1,000.

Nick Chase, assistant U.S. attorney in North Dakota, said Yu even offered to replace workers free of charge if one left within two weeks of starting.

“It was a 2-for-1 special — like a pizza,” Mr. Chase said. “Everything about it was ugly.”

The case broke open in August 2004 after two Mexican illegal aliens working at the Buffet House in Grand Forks fled poor conditions and were picked up along a highway by Border Patrol agents.

Many of the drivers involved in the scheme were deported to China. Two North Dakota restaurant owners were sentenced to four months each for harboring illegal aliens.

But many illegal aliens, and many employers, say the recruiters provide a valuable service. Sergio Sosa, who organizes Nebraska meatpackers, said many are seen as heroes in the workers’ Mexican hometowns.

Mr. Sosa, speaking by telephone from Omaha, said that in the 1990s, companies bused illegal aliens from the U.S.-Mexico border, paying them room and board plus salaries of $100 a week. But after a government crackdown, they began to rely more on their workers to recruit friends and family back in Mexico.

“One of the meatpacking supervisors is from Michoacan, and most of the people working for him come from his town,” Mr. Sosa said. “There’s no official recruiting — it’s more internal through family.”

Migrants setting out along the border confirmed his account. Guadalupe Mendez, 26, said her sister found her work as a seamstress in Los Angeles. Lorenzo Garcia Ruiz, 38, said friends arranged a gardening job for him in Kentucky.

To make a real dent in the network, the U.S. government would need to go after employers or make them pay the costs of legalizing workers, migration activists say.

Investigators say fake documents make it difficult to prove an employer has knowingly hired an undocumented worker. Businesses argue that employers aren’t equipped to spot fraud and warn that more investigations could lead to workplace discrimination.

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