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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Bakery raid sheds light on border-crossing cards

By Morgan Lee
San Diego Union Tribune
Monday, November 22, 2010 at 11 a.m.

A line at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on Friday, Nov. 19, 2010.

In culminating a year of investigative work using wiretaps and informants, immigration officers led away 45 unauthorized workers from an industrial warehouse in Otay Mesa.

The extraordinary effort to prosecute the people who hired these employees — the owner and certain supervisors of S & S Bakery — also uncovered a more commonplace violation: Of all Mexicans detained by immigration authorities, half were working illegally in the United States after entering the country using a border-crossing card issued by U.S. consulates in Mexico.

These cards are scannable 10-year visas issued to qualified Mexican nationals living along the U.S.-Mexico border. They allow an unlimited number of temporary visits to the U.S. for business or pleasure, but not for regular employment.

“It’s quite a benefit to have it,” said Mike Carney, a special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.

During October, such cardholders accounted for more than 711,000 crossings into the United States through the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The State Department issued more than 700,000 of the cards last year; it said people who abuse them by working in the U.S. constitute a small minority.

Immigration officials who conduct audits and raids in San Diego County typically find that about 30 percent of unauthorized employees have the border-crossing card, Carney said.

S & S Bakery’s proximity to the border may explain why it had so many workers with border-crossing cards, he added.

For visitor visas such as the border-crossing card, the State Department focuses on making sure candidates have a compelling reason to leave the U.S. once their permission period expires. Applicants might need to prove that they have a permanent residence, bank accounts, other assets and family members in Mexico. The department rejects about one in 10 Mexicans seeking a border-crossing card.

It’s up to agencies within the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether a cardholder has violated the law by working in the United States.

Overall, immigration authorities said, the special dynamics of the U.S.-Mexico border economy can complicate their enforcement efforts.

Some companies hire illegal Mexican workers because they can pay them lower salaries, while the employees see the wages as still higher than what they can earn in their own country. They live in Tijuana, Mexicali and other border cities, where housing is relatively cheaper than in the U.S., and use their border cards to get to work.

Mexicans with the border card generally are subject to the same restrictions imposed on other U.S. visas. However, they don’t have to file entry and exit forms unless they travel more than 25 miles north of the border or stay for 30 days or longer.

Those exemptions make it quicker for cardholders to visit family, go to the beach, shop and conduct special business in San Ysidro, Chula Vista and farther north. They’re also designed to help U.S. authorities focus on security and law-enforcement priorities, said Marc Rosenblum, a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington.

“The general tendency in the U.S. and around the world is to recognize that facilitating legal flows will enhance security,” he said. “Someone who goes back and forth 100 times a year ought to pass quickly so that authorities can look for the bigger priority.”

Raids such as the Oct. 13 sweep of Otay Mesa’s S & S Bakery have grown less frequent as the Obama administration focuses on deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records and using business audits to discourage employers from hiring illegal immigrants.

Prosecutors have accused the bakery’s owner, Jesse William Fadick, and four of his employees of running an extensive scheme to employ illegal immigrants and evade detection by immigration authorities. Fadick pleaded not guilty in federal court Tuesday to a felony charge of knowingly hiring at least 10 illegal immigrants, and a hearing was set in anticipation of a new plea.

The unauthorized workers arrested in the bakery raid have signed voluntary deportation agreements or been referred to an immigration judge for likely deportation.

More than a dozen were released on their own recognizance as material witnesses in the federal court case against Fadick and others.

Those who had border-crossing cards and were deported are unlikely to get them back, authorities said. Material witnesses can eventually reapply after leaving the country.