Immigration Debate to Reach Supreme Court

A few blocks down the main road from this small downtown in the north Georgia hills, the Matul family from Guatemala has opened a grocery selling fresh exotic fruits, canned juice from Mexico and international telephone calling cards.

Owner Brenda Matul, 29, counts on the influx of Hispanic immigrants to the community to seal the success of her 5-month-old Tienda la Guadalupana — and her life's journey from Central America to become a naturalized U.S. citizen with U.S.-born, bilingual children.

"One day we can grow more if immigrants keep coming to us for imports," Matul said about her clientele. "But now they're worried and afraid, afraid of going back, of poverty."

Immigrants account for nearly one out of every six of Calhoun's 13,000 residents. Like virtually everyone else in town, at some point, most have worked for the world's largest carpet makers, headquartered here and in nearby towns.

Now, one of those companies faces a lawsuit over the immigrant workers it hires, and the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case Wednesday. The litigation could change this community and set precedents for how the country deals with immigration.

One current and three former employees of Mohawk Industries Inc. have filed a class action lawsuit against the firm, alleging it knowingly hired hundreds of illegal immigrants to suppress legal workers' wages. The company categorically denies knowledge of any illegal workers on its payroll and says it provides all employees with competitive wages and health benefits.

The case raises the three pivotal questions in the immigration debate: Are immigrants, legal or not, coming to work in the U.S. because the economy needs them or because companies exploit cheap labor to the detriment of U.S.-born workers? Should the front-line controls on illegal immigration be the personnel offices of manufacturers? And will stricter checks on hiring documents for applicants who look or sound foreign discriminate against all Hispanics?

The Supreme Court will focus only on whether a company and its agents — recruiters, in this case — can be considered a racketeering enterprise under civil provisions of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which allows the plaintiffs to ask for triple damages.

Both sides agree, however, that the case is about U.S. citizens taking matters in their own hands because they feel that illegal immigration is out of control.

"This points out the need to have private enforcement. It gives private citizens some recourse to protect themselves," said Howard Foster, the employees' attorney and a noted immigration-control activist who has taken on large corporations across the country. His clients, through him, declined interview requests.

Research is mixed on immigrants' impact on U.S.-born workers. George Borjas of Harvard University has concluded that, between 1980 and 2000, the wages of U.S.-born men without a high school diploma have decreased by as much as 7.4 percent because of immigrant labor. But other economists say filling jobs that Americans tend to avoid spurs the economy to grow locally, reducing automation and outsourcing, and enriching local coffers through taxes and shopping.

"Ninety-plus percent of the time, wages are helped by the influx of documented and undocumented immigrants," said Dan Siciliano of Stanford University. "It's no fun for that 10 percent. But we shouldn't get rid of immigrants who help those nine out of 10 workers."

Keeping illegal immigrants out of company jobs should be easy, since the law requires employers to check a list of documents for all job applicants, and many workers without papers tend to pick up temporary jobs where they're paid cash. But corporations say it's nearly impossible to spot fake documents. Some immigration enforcement officials agree that, as a result, companies not considered "critical infrastructure" face a minimal risk of prosecution.

"The argument 'I tried my best' is usually successful unless you have a mole with a tape recording, 'Give me illegal aliens to hire,"' said Victor Cerda, former counsel for the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But now the government plans to crack down harder on employers who harbor and hire illegal immigrants, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday after a series of nationwide raids at a pallet manufacturer's plants. More than 1,100 people were arrested on administrative immigration charges.

Juan Morillo, Mohawk's attorney, said immigration officials haven't approached the company since the lawsuit was filed in January 2004. Mohawk also argues that going beyond routine document checks for applicants who look Hispanic would only open the company up to charges of discrimination.

"The company feels very strongly the desired effect is to make it more difficult to hire Hispanics," Morillo said about the lawsuit, adding that the company "will not do anything to try and change the demographics of its work force."

Immigrants and advocates fear, however, that companies will make such changes, especially in places like northwest Georgia where the Hispanic immigrant population is new. From 1990 to 2000, the town's Hispanic population jumped from 39 to 1,821, according to census figures. Most of those new residents immigrated from Mexico and Central America.

"The city is growing because of the Hispanics," said Armando Rodriguez as he helped customers at his butcher and deli shop near Matul's. "But they don't like us."

Rumors about crackdowns on illegal immigrants and the lawsuit before the Supreme Court are spreading fear and confusion, said America Gruner, a community health worker from Mexico who has lived in nearby Dalton for five years.

"A lot of people want to leave; some take for granted that many people are going to be deported," she said.

Still, immigrants like Rodriguez say they like the "very quiet village" because it's good for their children. This is where the 41-year-old Guatemalan, who first moved to California when he was 20 and eventually worked for Mohawk, realized his small entrepreneur dream.

"I dreamed of working, making money and going back," he said with a grin, sparkling piInatas hovering above his cash counter. "But now I like it here."