Immigration raids in the city last week reflect efforts to curb soaring numbers of illegal aliens working in Maryland -- an increase that means thousands fewer available jobs in a market already suffering from a lackluster economy.
The number of illegal aliens in Maryland -- about 78,000 according to a research group -- is almost triple that of 10 years ago, and has grown at twice the national average. The growth -- mostly involving immigrants from Central America, the Caribbean and West Africa -- is evident throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor, immigration officials said.
During the past 10 years, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has doubled its Baltimore staff of investigators to 25, and is targeting companies that employ illegal aliens.
Knowingly hiring an illegal immigrant can cost a company tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
In April, Thompson Lincoln Mercury in Dundalk was fined $30,000 after investigators discovered work documents had been altered for an illegal alien working there as a mechanic.
Structural Preservation Systems, a Baltimore construction company, was fined $21,500 for employing one undocumented worker.
And Joe Corbi's Pizza, a Baltimore company that sells pizza kits to schools and athletic groups for money-making projects, paid more than $8,000 after the INS discovered two illegal aliens working there as pizza makers.
"A $3,000 to $4,000 fine for someone with eight or nine employees -- that gets their attention," said INS investigations supervisor Thomas Perryman.
Employers must obtain proof of identity and economic eligibility, and record the information on an INS form, or they can be prosecuted. Those who unknowingly receive phony documents from their workers usually are let off the hook.
In the mid-1980s, federal immigration agents were lucky to catch a few dozen undocumented workers a year. These days, tips come in at the rate of hundreds a month, filling file cabinets and crates at the INS investigation office on Caton Avenue.
About 78,000 illegal immigrants are in Maryland, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group. In last week's raid, at Lexington Market and at Donut Delight Inc., officers arrested 18 workers.
Researchers say the cost of undocumented workers to Maryland is significant -- although no one has come up with an accepted formula for calculating it. Not only does Maryland miss out on the tax dollars generated by a legal employee, but most undocumented workers don't spend their earnings here. About 90 percent of the money is sent out of the country and home to their families, according to immigration officials. Maryland's proximity to Washington explains its 12th-place ranking nationally in the number of illegal aliens.
"Major metropolitan areas are a draw -- particularly Washington," said Jessica Vaughn, assistant director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "Once there is an established community of immigrants, more people are attracted their families move here."
Maryland can ill-afford to lose the jobs. It is well below many other states in its projections for job growth. And the state has yet to regain the number of jobs it held in 1990, before the recession.
INS officials say they believe that illegal immigrants are occupying thousands of jobs that otherwise would be available for legal residents.
Part of the attraction in the Baltimore-Washington corridor is the large number of service jobs in hotels, restaurants, construction companies and driving cabs, say INS officials.
"The jobs we're finding people in are jobs that our residents and U.S. citizens would be happy to have," said Benedict Ferro, director of the INS office in Baltimore.
In some cases, the illegal worker is willing to work for a salary well below minimum wage. Some undercut union rates by $4 or $5 an hour. Carpenters who may typically earn $16 an hour find themselves competing with undocumented workers willing to work for $6, agents said. But most are working for normal wages, officials said.
William Kaczorowski, president of the Baltimore Building and Construction Trades Council, has helped the INS on several cases, including the arrest of illegal workers at Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Baltimore Convention Center construction sites.
"There's more policing going on by the unions," he said. "We've become more vigilant."
The rapid growth in the U.S. foreign-born population has created a major political issue, with Congress taking steps to cut off welfare benefits to legal immigrants who are not citizens, and the Clinton administration seeking to curb the rate of immigration.
More money is being directed to the INS as a result.
"Headquarters is aware of the growing problems in this area," Mr. Ferro said. "I expect Baltimore will benefit substantially next year."
Some predict the local INS office could see a 50 percent increase in its staff of agents.
"We're hoping to free up hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs," said Mr. Ferro.