Law used to target businesses using illegal immigrants
LOS ANGELES (AP) – National anti-illegal immigration groups and disgruntled businesses are taking the fight against undocumented workers to California courts.
In the first of dozens of expected lawsuits, a temporary employment agency that supplies farm workers sued a grower and two competing companies on Monday.
Using California’s unfair-competition statutes, the plaintiff claimed the competitors gained an unfair advantage by hiring undocumented immigrants who accept lower wages and don’t demand pensions or workers compensation.
Similar cases claiming violations of federal anti-racketeering laws have seen mixed results. The California suits are believed to be the first based on a state’s unfair-competition laws, legal experts said.
National anti-immigration groups are helping finance the legal actions, believing businesses in other states with similar laws will use the tactic and spark a national wave of litigation that could become a major deterrent to hiring illegal immigrants.
“We see the legal profession bringing to this issue the kind of effect it’s had on consumer product safety,” said Mike Hethmon of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-illegal immigration group backing the California suits.
Filed in Kern County Superior Court by Santa Monica-based Global Horizons, the lawsuit claimed Munger Brothers, a grower, hired illegal immigrant workers from Ayala Agricultural Services and J & A Contractors.
All the defendants are based in the farm-rich Central Valley.
The suit alleges that Munger Brothers had a contract with Global Horizons to provide more than 600 blueberry pickers this spring but nixed the agreement so it could hire illegal immigrants.
“Competitors hiring illegal immigrants is hurting our business badly,” Global Horizons President Mordechai Orian said. “It’s to the point that doing business legally isn’t worth it.”
Munger Brothers lawyer Theodore Hoppe said the contract with Global Horizons fell apart because the laborers they provided couldn’t pick blueberries at the rate the company had promised. He said Munger Brothers hired workers through temporary agencies, which had the responsibility to hire legal workers.
Ayala Agricultural Services manager Javier Rodriguez hadn’t seen the suit but said the company doesn’t hire undocumented immigrants.
“If somebody doesn’t have a green card or work documents, we don’t hire them,” he said.
Messages left with J & A Contractors were not immediately returned.
The suits are the latest attempt by anti-illegal immigration groups to do what they claim the federal government isn’t – enforcing immigration law. In recent years, activists have staged protests at day labor sites, set up Web sites to post the names of companies suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, and assembled civilian patrol groups to watch the U.S.-Mexico border.
With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, undocumented workers are a large part of the nation’s work force.
Immigration law enforcement at work sites, however, is limited. In fiscal year 1999, there were 2,849 work site arrests compared to 1,145 last year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
To prove competitors hire illegal immigrants, businesses could use public records involving prior violations, testimony from former employees who have worked alongside illegal immigrants, and recovered W-2 tax forms that show people working under fake names and Social Security numbers, said David Klehm, the lead lawyer for cases in Southern California.
Companies planning to file additional lawsuits include farms and factories that depend heavily on immigrant labor, Klehm said.
Legal experts said the cases could be difficult to win. Under the California statutes, plaintiffs must prove a competitor’s activity directly harmed their business.
“Unless you’ve got smoking gun evidence, it’s hard to tie economic loss of one business to another’s practices,” said Niels Frenzen, a law professor at the University of Southern California
He believes it’s the first time the unfair-competition law has been used to target illegal immigration.
The Global Horizons lawsuit came after a settlement was reached in a Washington state class-action suit in which employees of Zirkle Fruit Co. sued their employer for driving down wages by hiring undocumented workers.
Based on federal anti-racketeering laws, the suit was settled for $1.3 million in January after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision to dismiss it.
Howard Foster, the lead plaintiff lawyer in the Washington case, said he expected such suits to multiply as business owners learn it’s often easy to a competitor hired illegal immigrants.
“So many people talk openly about using false documents to assemble an illegal work force,” Foster said. “And when you have IDs with upside down numbers and backward pictures, you know they are fake.”
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