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The state of illegal immigration in Hawaii.


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Union interest in uncovering undocumented workers has even led to overlapping surveillance. Kinney recounts: “We were scoping out one hotel on Kauai, and it had probably 30 to 40 guys working on site. We went over there and the agents went on the job and were getting all this information. As soon as they left, [Hawaii Carpenters Union financial secretary] Ron Taketa calls me up and goes, Lynn, you’re breaking my balls! We’ve been watching that job for three weeks now; we’re working with Ed Kubo to get a bust on this thing, and now they’re all gone! I said, sorry. You got to let me know what you’re working on.”

Agriculture hasn’t responded so intensely. Dean Okimoto, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation, and owner of Nalo Farms, says the issue of undocumented farm laborers is a bit different than having aliens working higher paying, skilled construction jobs. The real challenge for farmers is simply finding enough warm bodies to work the fields. “I’m not saying it’s right, but I do understand the motivation,” he says. “People in the general public that 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.”

There is a federal agency dedicated to investigating workplace violations involving aliens—U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Wayne Wills, special agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Office of Investigations, is the point man in charge of tracking down undocumented workers.

Photos: Rae Huo, Photo Illustration: Kristin Lipman


Wayne Wills, the special agent in charge of investigations at the Honolulu bureau, wouldn’t comment specifically about any of the union’s informal investigations, but said that ICE welcomes information from the public about potential immigration-related violations—the more substantiated, the better. “We take in a lot of leads, some of them more reliable than others, and so we have to prioritize and make decisions about which cases to pursue,” he says.

State lawmakers have also waded into the fray. House Bill 643, introduced by state Rep. Michael Magaoay, would create a state law that would authorize the state Contractors Licensing Board to suspend or revoke a contractor’s license for knowingly or intentionally employing an undocumented worker. Says Magaoay, “It’s intended to preserve the jobs that we have here, specifically in the construction industry. It’s not to be discriminatory; we’re just adding another tool for enforcement.”

Robin Kobayashi, executive director at Hawaii Immigrant Justice Center, says it’s a completely unnecessary measure. “It’s preempted by federal law,” she points out. “Basically, they’re trying to impose federal immigration law on the state level. It’s so redundant that it just reeks of anti-immigrant sentiment.”

Proponents of the bill, however, argue that it couldn’t hurt. Chock says that in the past, businesses caught employing undocumented workers have been able to get off with a slap on the wrist. “The fine just becomes a cost of doing business,” he says. “If you get a $5,000 fine, but you saved $500,000 by cheating, you’re going to keep cheating, because it pays.”

If the U.S. attorney’s office decides to prosecute a case, however, it’s likely that criminal felony charges will be brought against the company or individuals within it. Fines for felony charges can be as much as $250,000 per violation for individuals, and $500,000 for businesses.

Putting Numbers on It

So who’s coming into Hawaii? Where are they coming from? It’s tough to pin down—undocumented aliens are, by definition, an invisible population. No agency or organization we spoke with had a good idea about just how many undocumented foreign nationals currently live in the state. The closest thing to a recent estimate appears to be a 2006 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, which found that Hawaii is home to 20,000 to 35,000 undocumented migrant workers. Many we interviewed said that was probably a conservative figure.

By looking at data from the Hawaii Immigrant Court, it’s possible to get a sense of how Hawaii’s immigrant population breaks down by nationality. Thirty-two percent of Hawaii’s cases in 2007 (the most recent year for which data is available) involved immigrants from Mexico. The next highest percentages were China, with 17 percent, and the Philippines, with 16 percent. Hawaii turns out to be a popular destination around the world—our immigration court handled cases from 56 different countries, from Canada to Kenya.

In all, Hawaii’s immigration court completed 574 cases in 2007—a jump of 46 percent over the previous year.

Like anybody else, undocumented immigrants fly in, on domestic flights from the Mainland, using either a legitimate visa or forged identification.


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Honolulu Magazine January 2018
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