- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | An immigration raid last week has business owners worried a crackdown could hurt employers who have unwittingly hired illegal immigrants, businesspeople and activists say.

And the only action open to Anne Arundel County businesspeople may be to urge immigration officials to take caution, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a group that advocates for immigration reform.

The raid June 30 resulted in the arrest of 45 illegal immigrants, who federal officials say were knowingly employed by Annapolis Painting Services — a company whose Web site says it has worked on the Maryland State House and facilities at the U.S. Naval Academy. Company owner Robert Bontempo Jr., 46, is suspected of laundering portions of the immigrants’ salaries, the raid affidavit said. No charges had been filed. A woman who answered the company’s phone said Mr. Bontempo declined to comment.

Employers who knowingly hire illegal workers deserve to be punished because they gain an unfair advantage, Mrs. Jacoby said. But many employers try to check workers’ documentation —sometimes using “unreliable” federal systems, she said — and end up unknowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

“It’s hard to distinguish between guys like this and good-faith employers who make a mistake,” she said.

That’s the fear of local business owners, said Bob Burdon, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce. The case has especially interested owners of businesses like construction and landscaping companies that often employ immigrant workers, he said.

Such employers have to avoid charges of discrimination in examining potential employees, Mr. Burdon said. Yet they can face trouble if they fail to screen out illegals — and some fear their businesses may come under scrutiny because of the color of their employees’ skin.

“There’s an element of racial stereotyping going on here, which is not appropriate,” he said. “There are probably Caucasians in this county [who] are working illegally.”

Often, business owners must advocate for restrained raids to protect those trying to follow the law, Mrs. Jacoby said.

“There are very few local places where they’re trying to come up with laws to protect people,” she said. “So mostly people are trying to fight back against local crackdowns .— to try to make sure that if the feds are going to crack down, they’re going to crack down in a limited way.”

Widespread raids could send employers of illegal immigrants further underground for fear of losing their much-needed work force, Mrs. Jacoby said, adding she thinks the current system doesn’t allow enough workers to enter the country legally to keep the economy healthy.

An immigration crackdown “is going to be ineffective in the state of Maryland because it’s going to be strangling the local economy,” she said.

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