For years, Latinos came hunting work at Chip Harris' Charlotte concrete products company.
In April, he posted notices that his Utility Precast uses a federal program to check applicants' immigration status. Latinos soon stopped applying.
So when Harris had to meet a rush order for sound barrier walls in May, he turned to addicts from a halfway house. Of the eight laborers hired, two stole from the company, he says. Others quit. Two are still with him.
"There are not that many legitimate people looking for our kind of work," Harris said.
Utility Precast is a rarity, one of a small but growing number of employers nationwide using the voluntary program called Basic Pilot to check whether people are authorized to work in the U.S.
The increased usage comes amid high-profile work-site raids and a greater threat of criminal charges against bosses employing illegal immigrants. The flawed immigration system, which has defied reform, has left employers frustrated that they're shouldering the burden of enforcement.
The debate resonates in the Charlotte region, where rapid growth demands workers and low unemployment can make it hard to fill jobs. North Carolina has one of the nation's fastest-growing immigrant populations and is home to an estimated 390,000 illegal immigrants. South Carolina has 55,000.
Congress has proposed making Basic Pilot mandatory. States, impatient with federal delays on immigration reform, have taken action. Next year, Georgia will require contractors on state jobs to use it. The Carolinas have considered similar measures..
"It's an important, innovative, first bit of technology to bringing long overdue integrity to the workplace," said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group promoting controlled immigration.
Program critics, including some employers, say Basic Pilot is cumbersome, time-consuming and not foolproof. Harris' experience shows it's simple, but that using it might make some employers vulnerable to a shortage of workers. That's of special concern in a worker-hungry industry such as construction that has depended on illegal immigrants.
"It's an ideal system if you want to do a good verification on who you're hiring," said Harris, 66. "The other side of it is, there's not anybody to hire if you're using it."
A life in construction
Harris, a Durham native, Duke University graduate and Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam, has worked in highway construction since 1969. He has headed projects as far away as Africa and the Middle East.
In 1987, he started an asphalt paving company in Durham. He sold it, and in 1999 bought Utility Precast, which operates on a 35-acre site in Charlotte's North Graham Street industrial area.
The company, with about 45 workers, makes concrete barriers, including the 10-foot-long, 2-ton model common in highway construction. Other products include concrete bridge slabs and sound barrier walls.
Workers toil outside, in the heat and cold. They weld and bolt big steel frames for molding concrete. They guide and smooth the concrete gushing from delivery trucks. They load goods for shipment.
"It's just get out there and get your hands dirty," Harris said.
Utility Precast hasn't had a major accident or safety violation while he's owned the company. He's proud of his low workers' compensation insurance rate, which reflects few claims.
Starting pay is usually $8.50 to $9 an hour, with raises typical after 90 days to $10 to $12, Harris said. Workers who advance can make $35,000 to $45,000 a year.
When Harris bought the company, the work force had shifted from about 60 percent black and the rest white, to at least half Latino. Turnover is highest among the least-skilled laborers, who account for most of his 20 or so hires a year.
"There was nobody coming around looking for jobs except Latinos," Harris said.
Utility Precast has long followed the 1986 law requiring employers to obtain identification, such as a Social Security number, that indicates whether new hires are citizens or authorized to work in the U.S. But fakes are readily available on the black market, and employers aren't required to verify documents.
Construction has been a major beneficiary of that loophole. The industry employs about 20 percent of the nation's illegal immigrant workers, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
"I didn't realize it, but apparently some of the people I've hired in the past -- even though their credentials looked perfect -- they must not have been legal," Harris said.
The immigrant issue
This year, the immigration debate exploded nationwide.
In April, an Observer investigation revealed illegal immigrants working for contractors on N.C. road projects. Eleven workers said they made up or bought their Social Security numbers on the counterfeit market for $30 to $120. The numbers were fake, stolen or belonged to dead people.
Within days, U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Charlotte Republican, called for federal legislation that included banning contractors from taxpayer projects if they hired illegal immigrants.
The N.C. Department of Transportation is by far Harris' biggest customer. The agency doesn't require contractors to verify employees' documents. Still, Harris worried.
"I didn't want to run a risk of losing that," he said. And, "I want to hire legal folks."
He'd learned from the Observer series about Basic Pilot. Signing up starts by simply logging on to a Web site, agreeing to program rules and completing a trial run -- about an hour's work, Harris said.
After hiring a person, company officials follow the same procedure of collecting identification. Then, they log on to Basic Pilot and enter the new hire's name, date of birth and Social Security number. The program taps the Social Security Administration database to check that everything matches.
A response comes within seconds. If the documentation isn't valid, the worker is referred to SSA to resolve what could be just a typo or other legitimate glitch. For noncitizens, the program also taps immigration databases to check, for example, that a work visa is valid.
"Once you run the first guy through and get the feel of it, it's real simple," Harris said.
All new hires must be checked, once a company enrolls. But the program can't be used to check existing employees.
Some new Latino hires were approved, a few rejected, Harris said. Word spread, and they quit applying. Some left after reading the program notice on the office wall. He wonders whether legal immigrants are boycotting because he's using the program.
Harris has Latino immigrant workers in key positions, and he's sure they're on the job legally, some even citizens, he said.
The father of three and grandfather calls himself a conservative Republican. Crossing the border illegally is wrong, he says, and immigrants with criminal records should be deported. He also doesn't want people using someone else's Social Security number to get a job.
But like many in business, he says the nation needs workers, and immigrants have helped fill that need. He blames lawmakers for not devising a system of temporary work visas or something similar that would allow immigrants to work where needed.
He doesn't buy the idea that immigrants are displacing citizens or unfairly competing for jobs.
"If that was the case, I'd have people here looking for work," he said.
So far, he has been able to meet his needs. Come the busier spring season, that might change.
"If I had a surge in work and couldn't get any employees, I don't know what I'd do."