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December 2003, Volume 10, Number 4

Raids on illegal workers drop

Raids on illegal workers drop
By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press
Published 12/01/03 05:15:16, FresnoBee.com

When federal agents swept into Wal-Marts across the country and arrested 245 floor cleaners they were
reviving an increasingly rare practice.

Politics and economics weaned the federal government from workplace crackdowns of illegal employees
years ago. The government has busted steadily fewer employers and arrested fewer illegal employees
since the late 1990s, according to federal immigration data.

Immigration officials often attribute the marked decline in workplace enforcement to a new focus on
national security, saying that agents who once raided restaurant kitchens and construction sites have
been reassigned to airports and nuclear plants.

But, in fact, the decline began four years before Sept. 11, 2001, as the frenetic economy drew foreign
nationals into bottom-rung jobs Americans wouldn't take, and as federal immigration policy-makers
focused on deporting criminals and fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border.

On some occasions when agents did swoop in, lawmakers howled to protect important business
constituencies.

An estimated 3 million new workers entered the United States during the economic boom, many of them
legally. But many of the most backbreaking jobs went to those who crossed the border without papers.
And while the law says undocumented immigrants cannot work, a flourishing gray market says
welcome.

An Associated Press analysis of federal immigration data tracks the drop in workplace enforcement:

The average number of completed employer investigations fell from 6,100 a year during the 1990s to
1,900 a year over the past three years -- a 70% decline. The average number of employers fined for
having undocumented workers fell from 1,025 to 110.

While more than 200,000 businesses are believed to employ undocumented workers, according to the
General Accounting Office, only 53 employers were fined in fiscal year 2002.

An average of 200 workers were arrested each week during the 1990s, peaking with 340 workers in
fiscal 1997; Since fiscal year 2000, arrests have averaged 12 a week.

As recently as 1998, the equivalent of 344 full-time agents worked on employer investigations; by fiscal
2001, that number had fallen to 124, according to the GAO. While there is no separate line item in the
immigration budget for workplace enforcement, officials say they had fewer agents because funding
declined over the years.

Some immigration officials in Washington warn against concluding that workplace raids have been all
but abandoned, particularly since the Immigration and Naturalization Service was absorbed into the
Department of Homeland Security this spring.

The Wal-Mart raids, which took place Oct. 23 and netted mostly employees of cleaning subcontractors,
are a prominent example.

Garrison Courtney, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also notes that
agents hit 15 convenience stores last month in Northern California, arresting 31 foreign-born workers.

Immigration data show that in recent years a greater portion of criminal cases are completed, and closed
cases are increasingly likely to end with successful prosecutions.

Still, the fraction of businesses that pay any penalty for hiring undocumented workers is minute.

"It's a wink and a nod. We recognize that the work force is needed and so we simply don't enforce at the
workplace," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "The reality is, there are somewhere between 8 and 12 million
undocumented workers and if you did serious workplace enforcement that would cause serious
displacement."

By law, employers must verify workers' legal status by checking identification such as Social Security
cards and drivers licenses -- documents that are easily forged. Forgeries may be easily overlooked, and
companies that rely on subcontractors for employees argue that they're not responsible.

The decline in workplace enforcement reflects this reality: Raids are not only unpopular, they also
disrupt businesses far more than the supply of undocumented labor.

"They have not had any enduring effect on the labor force," said Wayne Cornelius, an immigration
expert at the University of California at San Diego.

Joe Greene, the federal agent now in charge of worksite enforcement, said he grew tired of reading that a
week after a raid, the same undocumented workers had returned -- or others had taken their place.

"The question we were asking ourselves internally was, 'What impact are we having on the problem?' "
said Greene, ICE's deputy assistant director for investigations.

The new priority has been to focus federal efforts on worker smuggling, sweatshop exploitation and
instances in which undocumented workers displace U.S. workers.

Doris Meissner, the top federal immigration official under President Bill Clinton, likened the policy shift
under her watch to how the FBI moved from bank robberies and auto theft to white-collar and other
organized crime.

"You knew you would have fewer cases, but you would have much more impact in ripple effects," said
Meissner, now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

The Wal-Mart case capped a five-year investigation and fits that set-an-example approach.

The government is asking a federal grand jury to find that Wal-Mart knew the crews of mainly Eastern
European workers had invalid work papers. Corporate officials say they had no idea the workers were
illegal and that checking documents was the subcontractor's job.

It can be politically hazardous to climb the economic pyramid and go after more established firms or
industries.

In 1998, Georgia politicians insisted that agents abandon raids on Vidalia onion farms that netted 21
arrests of illegal workers.

Saying the $70 million crop might rot in the fields, local congressmen brokered a deal that allowed
workers to finish the harvest.