Immigration: Enforcement or Politics?

In the absence of federal immigration reform and with an election coming, Homeland Security's workplace crackdown is getting both praise and criticism
A U.S. Border Patrol agent checks an illegal alien for contraband in Nogales, Ariz., August 2005. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Jazmin Zavala, an office cleaner in King of Prussia, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, expected a regular shift when she reported to work July 31. But her day turned to worry when her employer, ABM Industries (ABM), called a mandatory employee meeting at 4:30 p.m., the time workers usually collect their checks.

Zavala, 22, says that when she and 50 other workers arrived at the meeting, an immigration official dressed in plainclothes said into a megaphone, "You belong to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)." Several officers then checked each worker's identification, releasing those with proof of U.S. citizenship and searching those remaining. Men were handcuffed and escorted into a police truck, while women, including Zavala, were arrested and fitted with ankle bracelets. "It was horrible," Zavala said through a translator. "As they were searching me all I could think about is my [4-month-old] baby. I don't understand because we are not criminals, only workers."

"Culture of Compliance"

Zavala, who entered the U.S. illegally in 2001 from Mexico City, is now waiting for a letter from the agency about her fate. She lives with her mother and two young children in Norristown, Pa.

ABM spokesman Tony Mitchell declined to discuss the particulars of the event, but says the San Francisco-based company complied with ICE in the enforcement action. ICE spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery confirmed that agents questioned each individual about his or her immigration status and that those determined to be illegally present in the U.S. and working illegally were arrested, following normal procedures.

The raid at ABM is one of the most recent in a series of stepped-up enforcement actions in recent months by ICE, a branch of the Homeland Security Dept. While workplace raids were rare just a few years ago, ICE has posted record enforcement action in the last 12 months; in fiscal year 2007, it made 863 criminal arrests and 4,077 administrative arrests. That's up more than 800% since 2002, when there were just 25 criminal arrests and 485 administrative arrests.

The agency's aim, says ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, is to show employers and workers that until new immigration laws come into effect, the agency will steadfastly enforce existing law. "Our goal is to create a culture of compliance," says Myers. "The IRS doesn't audit every tax return in the country, but the threat of an IRS audit is enough to compel most people to do the right thing."

Policy Shift

But critics say ICE's actions are more about politics than law enforcement. Following Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform in June 2007, the Bush Administration has turned to the Homeland Security Dept. to show it's serious about enforcing current laws. President Bush strongly supported the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007—written by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and the White House—which called for a legalization program for undocumented immigrants with an eventual path to citizenship. A fierce public debate ensued, as did a rift in the Republican Party, with the majority of the party's conservative base opposed to the bill because of its legalization provisions. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee and a co-sponsor of the 2007 bill, now uses tougher rhetoric on the campaign trail, saying law enforcement and border control are top priorities.

Appearing tough could help Republicans win votes in November, but immigrant and worker advocate groups consider ICE's tactics harsh and inhumane. Following a May 12 raid of the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa—the largest-ever workplace raid, with 389 worker arrests—the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony July 24 about the lack of adequate access to legal counsel for the workers arrested in that and other actions. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) called on President Bush to place a moratorium on ICE raids, comparing the agency to the "Gestapo."

"Something really shifted in the Bush Administration once it realized comprehensive immigration reform was not going to pass on its watch," says Peter Markowitz, professor of law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. "When they saw the public policy battle was lost, they moved instead to public relations. The strategy now is to shore up the Republican base by demonstrating a big, flashy show of force." Markowitz says he thinks the strategy, which he dubs "tokenism," will backfire, as the GOP risks becoming associated with an "unforgiving and unreasonable approach to immigration."

Special Attention to Certain Industries

But ICE administrators say their efforts are by nature more symbolic than comprehensive. Myers says a variety of factors points the agency to a particular workplace, from information given by informants and undercover agents, to tips gathered on hotlines and calls from employers who feel competitors have an unfair advantage with undocumented workers. Some industries that get special attention include critical infrastructure, service and hospitality, meat processing, and construction. "We go where the evidence takes us," Myers says.

She declined to say what information led ICE to ABM, but ABM spokesman Mitchell says the company cooperated with the agency. "Our policy is full compliance with the law," he says. "When ICE informed us that some of our employees had gone outside the law by providing false documentation, we cooperated with them on the enforcement action."

ABM Industries is one of the largest janitorial-services contracting firms in the U.S., with 107,000 employees. It also provides parking, security, engineering, and lighting services for commercial and industrial clients. Mitchell says the company was not found guilty of any wrongdoing in ICE's July 31 raid. He adds that while ABM has dealt with inquiries by U.S. immigration authorities about worker documentation over the years, the incident at the King of Prussia work site was the firm's first raid. Mitchell says the company is not changing its hiring procedures in the wake of the enforcement action. He says, however, that the company continues to train supervisors on employment verification and to conduct background checks on potential hires.

A Call for Coordination

Businesses and business groups have been vocal in their criticisms of current immigration policy, but are fighting the battle (, 7/28/08) in state legislatures and courts rather than on the front lines of ICE actions. "We don't take a position on raids themselves," says Angelo Amador, an immigration policy director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We think we need to enforce the law, and employers cooperate with raids. But we advocate less flashy, disruptive actions." Amador says ICE should reach out to employers to coordinate enforcement actions as a way to reduce negative publicity and needless work interruptions.

ICE's Myers, however, says that news of crackdowns encourages employers to make sure they "aren't on the wrong side of an enforcement action," and change their hiring practices. She says some employers have responded by voluntarily complying with E-Verify or by conducting credit checks to verify the identity of potential hires. Groups that advocate restrictions on immigration support ICE's stepped-up efforts. "ICE actions have been entirely legitimate and carried out in a professional manner in an effort to deal with a national illegal immigration crisis," says Dan Stein, president of Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a Washington-based think tank that lobbies for more restrictions.

Some state lawmakers are asking ICE to coordinate its enforcement efforts with state and local agencies. "State [lawmakers] are calling for more coordination between ICE and state agencies like child welfare agencies," says Sheri Steisel, an attorney for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). "We need to ensure that the children of workers detained are safe and not left unattended." Steisel says that while the NCSL does not hold a position on ICE's increased enforcement, the group notes that states face constrained budgets in a tough economy. That means state lawmakers are under pressure to curb costs associated with a rising immigrant population, including health care, education, and law enforcement. Steisel says state lawmakers have been waiting in vain for a federal, comprehensive solution that includes both enhanced enforcement and a plan for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

E-Verify Problems

In the meantime, as ICE continues its stepped-up actions, immigrant and worker advocates say the agency is aiming at the wrong targets. "These raids, which target undocumented workers instead of undocumented criminals, are out of line with our nation's values and our economic interests," says Matt Nerzig, spokesman for Local 32 BJ of the Service Employees International Union, which represents ABM workers, including Zavala, in King of Prussia. "Rounding up and deporting hard-working, immigrant workers hurts workers and businesses, and does nothing to fix our broken immigration system."

Advocates also say ICE raids inflict disproportionately more punishment on workers than on employers. In an ICE worksite enforcement, employees without proper documentation are arrested and either detained or released to await possible deportation. Meanwhile employers are fined only when they are found to be knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants, which is difficult to prove. Civil fines for employers run from $275 to $11,000 for a third offense, per worker; criminal fines are up to $3,000 per worker and up to five months in prison.

Employers, meanwhile, say they walk a tightrope above various laws and requirements. The voluntary system for employers to check workers' identities, E-Verify, is hampered by problems such as out-of-date information and an inability to help employers detect when an employee presents genuine documents that may be stolen, according to a June report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress. Employers also face potential lawsuits from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if workers find background or identity checks discriminatory.

To help employers more effectively comply with the law, ICE is building on a voluntary program called ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE), set up in 2006. IMAGE, which helps employers detect fraudulent worker documentation, subjects participating employers to an audit and requires them to enroll in E-Verify. Charter members include Aluminum Precision Products in Santa Ana, Calif., and FedEx Ground (FDX) operations in Pittsburgh. Myers says ICE is recruiting more employers and will announce new members in September. On Aug. 5, ICE also rolled out a voluntary "Scheduled Departure" pilot program, which allows immigrants with outstanding deportation orders and no criminal history to turn themselves in and leave the country. But as of Aug. 15, only six of the estimated 457,000 such individuals have come forward, ICE spokesman Alvarez-Montgomery said.

Candidates Are Avoiding the Issue

One group advocating tighter immigration controls claims that whether it is the effect of stepped-up raids or of a weakening economy, there's evidence the immigrant population is beginning to decline. The Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), an affiliate of FAIR, released a study Aug. 1 arguing that the illegal immigrant population has declined by 11% through May 2008, or by 1.3 million workers, since hitting a peak in August 2007 of 12.5 million. Findings are based on the group's analysis of monthly U.S. Census data from the Current Population Survey and the Homeland Security Dept.'s Office of Immigration Statistics.

The report's findings, however, are in dispute. As CIS concedes, it's possible that U.S. Census data undercount the number of undocumented workers. But ICE's Alvarez-Montgomery says the findings of the CIS study affirm what his agency has heard anecdotally. "Certainly a strong program of interior enforcement has made entering and staying in the United States illegally less attractive," says Alvarez-Montgomery. "The probability of being arrested and detained is greater than ever before."

With Presidential candidates avoiding the controversial immigration issue as much as they can, the battle among ICE, employers, undocumented workers, and their advocates will continue in scattered locales like King of Prussia. "One agency can't go after all 12 million people," says Amador of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "At some point we have to make hard choices and not just headlines. We all know there is a problem, and we need a comprehensive solution."

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