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L.A. HIRING REVIEW SOUGHT IN WAKE OF DWP RAID, OFFICIALS DOWNPLAY SECURITY THREAT.

Byline: RICK ORLOV Staff Writer

Los Angeles officials called Wednesday for a review of city hiring practices in the wake of a federal raid at the DWP in which five workers suspected of being in the country illegally were arrested.

Officials were quick to downplay any threat to the security of the city's water or power supplies and said the arrests capped a yearlong review of more than 7,000 worker records by the Department of Water and Power and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

But Los Angeles officials said the issue highlights the difficulties employers face checking workers' backgrounds and said city hiring processes should be reviewed.

``Obviously it's very disturbing,'' said Councilman Jack Weiss, who heads the council's Public Safety Committee and has made homeland security a priority. ``We need to know more of the facts and details of how these folks were hired.

``I have no doubt we need to take a closer look at who the city is hiring. It's a problem all major organizations are facing.''

City Personnel Director Margaret Whelan said the city continually updates its hiring criteria, based on guidelines from the Department of Homeland Security.

``We fingerprint everyone and do a criminal background check, but it is up to each department to certify that someone is eligible to work,'' Whelan said, noting that includes requiring a birth certificate, photo identification or documents showing they are in the country legally and eligible to hold a job.

``We should have a system where people don't fall through the cracks,'' Whelan said.

``Do mistakes occur? Yes. And if somebody wants to provide falsified information and they do a good job, we still have to do due diligence.''

ICE and the DWP have agreed to work on developing new hiring guidelines, including use of ICE computers to screen job applicants.

``This is a problem every large employer faces,'' ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said. ``We are aware that they are often hampered by fraudulent documents and a dizzying array of regulations. That's why we are trying to work with them to help screen workers, and one of the goals of President Bush's in pushing for a tamper-proof work card.''

Alec Levenson, a research scientist at University of Southern California's Center for Effective Organizations, said part of the problem for employers is the mixing of immigration politics with the threat of terrorism.

``They are really separate issues to me,'' Levenson said. ``Having a more or less rigorous policy on immigration and how much we enforce it is different from our efforts to keep out Al-Qaida.

``What you have in large corporations is different levels of compliance. Some do a rigorous job and others make it look as if they are complying to avoid possible sanctions. There is a bigger issue among those who turn a blind eye to the hiring of illegal immigrants.''

Dan Mitchell, a UCLA professor of management and public policy, said there is no foolproof method available to ensure workers are legally in the country, and the prospect of a national identity card raises issues of civil liberties -- and cost.

``You are talking about a card that would probably cost about $5 to make,'' he said, ``and you would have to give them out to millions of people who are in the work force and then constantly update it. You are talking about a program in the billions of dollars.''

Current law depends on employers to try to determine if a worker is legitimate, Mitchell said.

``I'm sure that government is more diligent about this than private industry, but what is an employer to do? Have you seen a birth certificate? They weren't really designed for this kind of use and they can be easily copied. It's a difficult issue.''

The U.S. Senate is considering an immigration reform plan that would require employers to check Social Security numbers and the immigration status of all new employees. Hiring an undocumented worker could result in fines of $200 to $6,000 per violation.

While it is unclear if the Senate would approve financial sanctions against employers, the plan calls for steep fines and jail time for employers that hire illegal immigrants after installation of a new electronic system to verify work eligibility.

The ICE investigation of city workers was part of its effort to review any threats to the nation's infrastructure. The DWP is the nation's largest municipally owned utility and has power and water lines that span the state.

``It was one of our work force enforcement programs that primarily involves those issues with a nexis to domestic security or the nation's infrastructure,'' Kice said. ``We've looked at power plants, oil refineries and related industries around the country.''

A review of workers at Los Angeles International Airport was done after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, she said.

All of those arrested at the DWP had been employed there for more than three years and held jobs ranging from a management analyst to a water sampling technician.

They were from five countries -- Ethiopia, Nigeria, El Salvador, Mexico and the Philippines -- and all had been admitted to the country legally.

Some were lawful immigrant residents in the country on green cards, but had criminal convictions leaving them open for deportation. Others had arrived on visas that had expired.

``I think we need to know what exactly we are doing in hiring and making sure that the people we hire are in this country legally,'' said Councilman Dennis Zine, who chairs the council's Personnel Committee.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa supported the investigation and efforts to review the city hiring processes.

``We are 100 percent committed to protecting our infrastructure and that is why we cooperated in the investigation,'' Villaraigosa said in a statement. ``The heart of the matter is protecting our nation from terrorism.''

Daily News staff writer Lisa Friedman contributed to this article.

rick.orlov(at)dailynews.com

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 18, 2006
Words:982
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