Gov't crackdown on hiring of illegal workers

April 30, 2009 8:39:37 AM PDT
An Obama administration policy to go after employers who knowingly hire and exploit illegal workers is not significantly different from the Bush administration strategy, according to a copy of the guidelines obtained by The Associated Press. The new guidelines for immigration agents, which the Homeland Security Department calls a "renewed department-wide focus," will impose fines and criminal charges against employers who break the law.

While the priority is to go after employers, the policy states that agents will continue to arrest illegal workers. The Obama administration policy, however, stresses that humanitarian guidelines will be followed more broadly than in the previous administration.

The new policy was being circulated to immigration officers around the country on Thursday.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said that under her leadership the agency will now be focused on "renewing a priority on employers who are making money off of these illegal immigrants and giving them jobs that should be going to American workers, as opposed to just counting numbers."

In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement brought criminal charges against 135 employers and 968 workers.

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this month, Napolitano said using investigative tools such as auditing documents employees fill out when they join a company, having illegal workers go undercover and talking to people who regularly interact with the employers are all ways to build a case against a business that hires illegal workers.

"What I want to do is deter more employers from intentionally and knowingly hiring illegal workers," Napolitano said.

Worksite enforcement operations take up only a small percentage of ICE's nearly $6 billion annual budget. And the agency's immigration raids have become politically and emotionally charged, as federal agents dressed in SWAT-like gear have swept into businesses and rounded up hundreds of illegal workers.

Ten years ago, the Clinton administration made changes to its workplace enforcement policies, deciding instead to focus on criminal activities related to illegal immigration. At the time, the now-dissolved Immigration and Naturalization Service targeted employers who worked with human traffickers and other criminal enterprises to smuggle workers across international borders. The Clinton-era strategy also called for auditing employers instead of raiding the businesses.

But these enforcement cases were inconsistent and the fines became to the employers just a cost of doing business and therefore ineffective, said Mark Reed, the former regional director of INS for the central region of the country.

Enforcement priorities shifted in once again in 1999 when immigration agents targeted Nebraska meatpacking plants as part of Operation Vanguard, which was meant to be an example to other employers. Immigration agents had checked thousands of employment forms and identified hundreds of workers they thought might be illegal.

That operation, however, became more notable for the economic disruption it caused than the arrests. Nebraska's political leaders exhorted the government to back off, complaining that production had fallen sharply as the plants' workers melted away.

"Vanguard was so successful that it was shut down," Reed recalled.

Early in the Bush administration, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, worksite enforcement took a back seat to terrorism.

"Everybody with a gun and a badge was out chasing terrorists," Reed said.

Over the past eight years, Bush administration officials said they were still focused on going after employers who knowingly hired illegal workers.

When Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, immigration officials began conducting more organized raids and developing criminal cases against the employers.

Building cases against employers take time, said Julie Myers, assistant secretary of ICE during the latter part of the administration. And immigration officials always faced the same question: "What do you do with the employees?"

The Obama administration is facing the same questions.

When the prosecution is complete, "Will those illegal immigrants be made to go home or not," asked Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

"The strategy of appearing tough on enforcement but not angering the open borders groups centers on very high profile arrests of egregious employers," he said. "They're going to be presented with ongoing political challenges in walking this tightrope."

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the guidelines. But he said he would keep a close eye on the enforcement.

"If the administration is true to its promise about cracking down on employers who wrongly hire illegal workers, they will need to enforce all immigration laws and not a selective few," the Republican lawmaker said.


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