Illegal immigrants losing jobs in federal officials’ ‘silent raids’
BREWSTER, Wash. — The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies’ records for illegal immigrant workers.
Past sweeps commonly led to the deportation of such workers. The “silent raids,” as employers call the audits, usually result in workers being fired, but in many cases they aren’t deported.
During the past year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted audits of employee files at more than 2,900 companies. The agency has levied a record $3 million in civil fines this year on businesses that hired unauthorized immigrants, according to official figures. Thousands of those workers have been fired, immigrant groups estimate.
Employers say the audits reach more companies than the work-site roundups of the administration of President George W. Bush. The audits force businesses to fire every suspected illegal immigrant on the payroll — not just those who happened to be on duty at the time of a raid — and make it much harder to hire other unauthorized workers as replacements.
Auditing is “a far more effective enforcement tool,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, which includes many worried fruit growers in this state.
Immigration inspectors who pored over the records of one of those growers, Gebbers Farms, found evidence that more than 500 of its workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico, were in the country illegally. In December, Gebbers Farms, based in this Washington orchard town, fired the workers.
“Instead of hundreds of agents going after one company, now one agent can go after hundreds of companies,” said Mark Reed, president of Border Management Strategies, a consulting firm in Tucson, Ariz., that advises companies on immigration law. “And there is no drama, no trauma, no families being torn apart, no handcuffs.”
President Barack Obama, in a speech last week, explained a two-step immigration policy. He promised tough enforcement against illegal immigration, in workplaces and at the border, saying it would prepare the way for a legislative overhaul to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants already in the country. White House officials say the enforcement is under way, but they acknowledge the overhaul is unlikely to happen this year.
In another shift, the immigration agency has moved away from criminal charges against immigrant workers who lack legal status but have otherwise clean records.
Republican lawmakers say Obama is talking tough but in practice is lightening up.
“Even if discovered, illegal aliens are allowed to walk free and seek employment elsewhere” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “This lax approach is particularly troubling at a time when so many American citizens are struggling to find jobs.”
Employers say the Obama administration is leaving them short of labor for some lowwage work, conducting silent raids but offering no new legal immigrant laborers in occupations, like farm work, that Americans continue to shun despite the long recession. Federal labor officials estimate that more than 60 percent of farm workers in the U.S. are illegal immigrants.
John Morton, chief of the immigration agency, said the goal of the audits is to create “a culture of compliance” among employers, so that verifying new hires would be as routine as paying taxes. The agency leaves it up to employ- ers to fire workers whose documents cannot be validated. But an employer who fails to do so risks prosecution.
The agency is looking primarily for “egregious employers” who commit both labor abuses and immigration violations, Morton said, and it is increasing penalties against them.