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UNALASKA - Federal immigration agents have arrested what they say were 20 illegal workers on fishing boats that tied up at Dutch Harbor over the past week.
A few of the workers were deck hands, but most were unskilled pollock and cod processors earning high wages while working long hours on the Bering Sea fishing grounds, authorities said.
``They're making phenomenal money, for them,'' said U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Tim Staebell. ``It's good-paying jobs for low-skilled work.''
With the minimum wage in Mexico the equivalent of about 50 cents an hour, $50 a day plus a share of fish profits doesn't look so bad. And some of the wages aren't bad by U.S. standards: Two factory trawler processing workers told the agent they'd earned $5,000 apiece over a 19-day period during a recent pollock opening.
Staebell said 24 illegal workers have been caught in Unalaska since mid-January. Most came from Mexico, while two were from El Salvador, he said.
Most of the men were first-time fish workers, although two cousins had worked illegally on the same boat for one or two years, agents said.
Another dozen would-be workers were intercepted at Anchorage International Airport while awaiting the 800-mile flight to the Aleutian Islands, where they'd been hired for seafood processing jobs.
Agents said they will begin visiting local shore plants this week.
Staebell said the two local INS agents were joined last week by four agents from Anchorage assisting in an operation termed ``Dutch 2000.'' Agents boarded 30 vessels and found illegal workers on 10 or 11 boats, he said.
Fishing companies are doing a good job of screening job applicants but some illegal workers avoid detection by using increasingly sophisticated counterfeit documents, Staebell told the Anchorage Daily News.
Agents boarded the boats while frozen fish was offloaded for markets in Asia and Europe. During a boarding, the captain orders the crew to assemble, typically in the galley, Staebell said.
The INS allows the assemblies at convenient times to avoid disrupting work routines. Agents then interview crew members, usually for just a few moments. Immigrant workers are required to produce immigration papers. The process takes about one or two hours per fishing vessel.
The illegal workers are flown from Unalaska in small groups on commercial carriers, heading to Anchorage and then to an INS detention center in Seattle and finally back to their home countries.
Illegal workers cost companies money, said Stephanie Madsen of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association in Juneau. When the INS removes illegal workers, it means the companies lost the money spent on transportation plus the cost of hiring replacements.
Processors cooperate with the INS, attending workshops where immigration agents describe counterfeit documents, Madsen said.
Employers face a Catch-22 because of laws governing job interviews, she said.
``You're limited in the kind of questions you can ask and the reasons for not hiring them.''
The seafood industry attracts immigrants because it offers many unskilled, entry-level positions. For the same reason, the industry is working with the state to get welfare recipients into the fisheries work force.
A strong national economy with a low jobless rate makes it hard to recruit Americans, Madsen said.