Il­le­gal im­mi­grants los­ing jobs in fed­eral of­fi­cials’ ‘silent raids’

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Ju­lia Pre­ston

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.

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