TOWER, N.D.—Lee Zimmerman had just gotten out of the shower when he heard a knock at his front door early one morning in April. Wearing only his boxer shorts, he opened the door to a cadre of armed officers who handcuffed him and demanded to know why he had illegal immigrants working at his family's dairy.
For the next six hours, federal agents hauled employees off their shifts and out of their homes. By the time the three dozen officers finished, they had arrested 13 of the 21-person staff, effectively shutting down Zimmerman's 2,500-cow operation. "You feel completely violated," Zimmerman says.
Immigration reform may be dead in Washington. But across the country, employers like the Zimmermans are bearing the brunt of Congress's failure. The burden is likely to increase as the Department of Homeland Security dramatically steps up raids against employers who hire illegal aliens. Although employers have always been liable for knowingly engaging illegals, enforcement has been limited. Last year, though, the number of arrests from such raids increased 239 percent, and in the coming months, because of renewed attention by law enforcement, it's likely to rise even further.
Fake papers. At the same time, federal officials have announced a controversial plan to send out thousands of letters notifying businesses of employees who appear to be using false papers. If employers don't take action—which will very likely mean laying off workers—they could face criminal charges. The program, which was scheduled to take effect September 14, is on hold pending court review.
Immigrant activists have long criticized workplace raids, claiming authorities use rough tactics and split up families, leaving U.S.-born children behind. One labor union is suing the government for violating employee rights during a raid on meatpacker Swift & Co. last December. But the Zimmermans' experience points to another effect of the raids: the devastating economic impact on businesses. While some companies knowingly hire illegal immigrants—and pay with fines or jail time—others, like the Zimmermans, insist they are innocent and yet pay with their livelihoods.
Sandhills Dairy sits in the flat expanse of corn, sunflower, and wheat fields about 50 miles south of the Canadian border. When it was founded in 1996 by Lee Zimmerman's father, Mike, the family and a handful of employees worked around the clock. For three years, Mike milked the 500 cows on the night shift, and his children helped after school. Yet as surrounding dairies consolidated, Mike needed to expand. He placed ads in the local newspaper and posted notices, but few workers answered. Those who did didn't last, even though the Zimmermans paid up to $30,000 a year, plus health benefits and free housing.
So in 2001, following the example of other dairymen, Mike hired Mexican immigrants—each of whom presented what appeared to be the two required forms of identification. Soon more than half of his staff was Mexican, and the dairy was milking 700 cows three times a day. "It was the only dependable source of labor," says Mike. The workers slowly picked up English and before long were sharing summer barbecues and Christmas dinners with the Zimmermans.
Then came the raid. For the first few days afterward, the dairy's remaining workers barely slept as they tried to milk 700 cows just once a day. The delays in milking led to health problems that in turn lowered the quality of the milk. The raid also hit at the height of the breeding season; 350 calves went hours without milk, and about 30 of them died. Lacking hands to artificially inseminate the heifers, the Zimmermans had to spend more than $35,000 on bulls.
Sell-off. Desperate for workers, Zimmerman advertised again. Three locals with no experience showed up, but all were gone within two months. Mike then paid a recruiter $3,500 a head for about a dozen new laborers who were supposed to be trained and bilingual. Most of them were not. The Zimmermans had to abandon plans to more than double their herd and have started selling cows. As the story got out, the family's reputation has suffered, as well. "I hope that the Zimmermans face time, too," one person wrote in response to a piece about the raid on a local television station. "How does a person just happen to end up in Towner, N.D., [who] is illegal?!"
Federal authorities, who have not charged the Zimmermans, will say only that the investigation is "ongoing." Yet the Zimmermans say they don't know what they could have done differently. Just weeks before the raid, an auditor told them their documents looked clean, although it turned out almost all were forged. And it wasn't until four months after the raid that the Social Security Administration notified them that some of their employees might be illegal. "Until we have retina scans, there is no way for the employer to tell you who exactly is standing in front of them," says Eileen Scofield, an immigrant attorney in Atlanta. "Employers still hold this vulnerability."
The Zimmermans know that all too well. Earlier this month, immigration trouble came to the farm again when authorities arrested four of the dairy's new workers at a local Wal-Mart on charges that they, too, were in the country illegally. Mike's daughter Jenny went through the work documents for each of the arrested men, reviewing color copies of their identification papers. Mike had already asked the Border Patrol to examine the documents. He says the agency refused. What else could the Zimmermans do? Jenny shook her head. "They looked real to me."