The state of illegal immigration in Hawaii.


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Illegal immigration has long been a controversial issue on the mainland. Hawaii hasn’t been as affected, thanks to our geographic isolation, but even these islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean haven’t been left completely untouched. The past year has seen a string of high-profile jobsite busts on both Oahu and Maui, with more than 150 workers arrested for violations at restaurants, construction sites and farms. Prosecutions and investigations are still ongoing on most of these busts, but here’s a roundup of what’s happened where:

• December 2007: 19 alien workers arrested, nine of them at The Pinnacle luxury condo project at the top of Bishop Street, 11 at a Halawa warehouse.

• April 2008: three arrested at Tenryoan Inc., a food vendor at Shirokiya at Ala Moana Center.

• May 2008: 22 arrested in one night at three different Maui restaurants: Cheeseburger Island Style, Cheeseburger in Paradise and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

• July 2008: 43 employees of agriculture company The Farms Inc. arrested at the Oasis apartment complex in Waipahu. Farms Inc. managers David Kato and Glen Kelley McCaig were later arrested, on Dec. 4.

• August 2008: 41 arrested at the Honua Kai Resort construction site in Kaanapali, Maui, 21 more arrested at the same site in September.

Ron Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney, says the recent string of busts has been a result of a coordinated, deliberate focus between ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the U.S. attorney’s office to deal with the problem of undocumented aliens in Hawaii. “We have seen an increase in the number of persons we’re running across, and that also probably prompted an increase in the attention paid to these kinds of cases, both locally and nationally,” he says.

Local labor unions have been galvanized by the issue. The use of undocumented workers is a phenomenon that exploded at the height of the development boom, when everyone in the construction industry was up to their hard hats in work and the biggest challenge was finding enough qualified laborers to cover the demand. But with the economy tanking and everyone scrabbling for a rapidly shrinking pool of jobs, the unions have become acutely concerned about any threat to their memberships’ livelihoods.

"People think that these workers are taking jobs from our locals.  But it's not easy to find ag labor. No one wants to work out in the sun for eight hours a day, for $8 to $12 an hour."—Dean Okimoto

The undocumented workers hanging drywall on the Pinnacle worksite, for example, are alleged to have been making just $6 to $8 an hour, paid in cash, with no benefits. Compare that to the $18 an hour a union carpenter’s apprentice doing similar work would have been making, in addition to benefits such as medical, vacation and 401k funding, and the unions’ motivation becomes clear.

“The Pinnacle bust was a wake-up call for us,” says Kyle Chock, executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), the marketing, lobbying and research arm of the Hawaii Carpenters Union. “If something like this could happen on Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu, a block away from the state Capitol, it’s got to be happening other places.”

RP launched a public awareness campaign called “Play Fair in Hawaii”. “Play by the rules, or don’t play at all,” goes the tagline. You may have seen the television commercials, featuring former investigative reporter Matt Levi.

Unions also started checking out construction sites, looking for evidence of workers who didn’t speak English, and might not be working in Hawaii legally.

Lynn Kinney, business manager and secretary treasurer of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, District Council 50, even hired Peruvian-born Fernando Ramos as an agent last year to help investigate job sites. “If they’re approached by a haole guy or a local guy, it’s immediately, oh, no speak English,” says Kinney. “But our guy is able to get on there and talk to them about maybe getting their paperwork in order, whatever they need.”

“We’re just trying to see what’s going on, and trying to get enough probable cause to bring it to Ed Kubo’s office,” Kinney says.

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