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Congress may send illegals packing — but what about their bosses?

The Strip has a word of warning for all you illegal immigrants out there: Watch out for la chota!

The fuzz picked up a 31-year-old Mexican in southwest Kansas on May 31. Federal authorities allege that the man was hauling 17 undocumented aliens in a 1998 Ford van.

A few weeks later, a grand jury indicted three Mexicans and two Guatemalans who worked at a meatpacking plant in Liberal. Prosecutors say the men used false Social Security numbers and lied about their employment eligibility.

If you've spent time in western Kansas, you know that illegal immigrants are there for the work, not the scenery. But what about the meatpackers, home builders and restaurant owners who illegally employ them?

Nada.

Jim Cross, a spokesman for Eric Melgren, the U.S. attorney in Kansas, tells this meat-packed patty that he doesn't know of a single case in the past two years in which a Kansas employer was charged with unlawfully employing an illegal alien. The U.S. attorney's office in western Missouri also comes up with a zero. "I am not aware of any [employers] that we have prosecuted," says Don Ledford, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Bradley Schlozman.

Melgren and Schlozman were appointed to their positions by President George W. Bush. For much of the Bush presidency, employers of illegal immigrants have enjoyed the benefits of cheap and docile labor without paying much of a price. The Washington Post recently reported that employer prosecutions fell from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003.

It is against the law to knowingly employ an unauthorized immigrant. The "knowing" part makes prosecution difficult. An illegal alien who lies or forges a document gives his employer what amounts to a get-out-of-jail-free card: What? Jesus, the dishwasher who knows only 11 words of English, is not a citizen? I'm shocked! Shocked!

Call the Strip a cynic, but a 98 percent drop in prosecutions would seem to suggest a shift in priorities.

The feds explain their seeming indifference to employer misconduct by nodding toward the smoking World Trade Center. According to Carl Rusnok, a Dallas-based spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after 9/11, investigators focused on areas of "critical infrastructure" — airports, military bases, power plants, refineries. "When you have so many illegal aliens in the country, you go for the people who can do the most damage," he says.

Obviously, the illegals out in western Kansas aren't doing much harm — except, perhaps, to the Strip's own fattened-up cousins.

Besides, rounding up employers could do some damage of a different kind. After raids on farms and meatpacking plants in the late 1990s, lawmakers got an earful from the lords of agribusiness, who despaired when much of their workforce vanished at the sight of investigators.

But the party may be ending for law-breakin' bosses. In April, federal agents arrested seven current or former managers at IFCO Systems, a pallet and crate company headquartered in Houston. In a search of 40 IFCO plants, investigators apprehended more than 1,100 illegal aliens. The government says company officials advised the workers on how to avoid detection and even paid for fake IDs. (In a statement, IFCO pledged cooperation with the investigation.)

In the midst of fierce debate about immigration, with Congress considering the most substantial changes to U.S. immigration policy in 20 years, the Strip figures that targeting employers would be one idea with wide appeal.

"Employers are not being held accountable," says University of Kansas anthropologist Don Stull, a co-author of Slaughterhouse Blues, a study of the meat and poultry industries and their impact on communities. Stull says it's commonly believed that 25 percent of meat-industry workers are unauthorized.

This contrarian cutlet called up the loudest (and cutest) immigration antagonist it could find. "There's no question that one of the most cost-effective ways of utilizing law-enforcement resources with respect to illegal immigration is to go after the employers," said Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who, running heavily on immigration issues, unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore in the 2004 election.

Of course, many of those folks the Strip hears bleating for tougher immigration policies don't seem to be talking about how illegal immigration improves their lifestyles.

According to The New York Times, Bush won 97 of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties in 2004. Illegal immigrants have helped build these Republican strongholds. About a third of roofers, drywall installers and insulation workers are unauthorized, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. But the Strip doesn't see too many flag-wavin', gun-totin' minutemen keeping vigil in the exurbs, where illegals arrive for work by the truck bed every day.

Kobach said it's not easy for a home buyer to insist on a legal construction crew, especially if the residence has been built already. Besides, the problem isn't that bad. "Although people talk about the presence of illegal labor in construction, it's still under 20 percent," Kobach says. "While it's certainly one of the more notorious industries, illegal labor isn't as high in construction as it is in things like meatpacking and also vegetable and fruit picking."

Which takes us back to the meatpacking plant in Liberal, where the three Mexicans and two Guatemalans were recently busted. They worked for a company called National Beef. When the Strip called up to ask about the indictments, the National Beef spokesman said he had no comment. But here's a tip for los federales: Its corporate office is in Kansas City, on North Ambassador Drive.

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