Cracking Down on Borders And Bosses

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By Julie Myers
Saturday, July 8, 2006

The lure of well-paid jobs continues to be the primary magnet for most people who come to this country illegally. A comprehensive immigration strategy that includes a temporary worker program, as proposed by President Bush, is critical to stemming this flow. This strategy must also include work-site enforcement with real consequences for those who knowingly employ illegal aliens.

My agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was created in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. At first we focused our work-site enforcement efforts on illegal workers at critical infrastructure locations such as nuclear and chemical plants, military installations, airports and seaports. While we continue to maintain these priorities, the agency is also focusing more on traditional work sites.

We believe the most effective strategy in combating illegal employment is criminal prosecution of unscrupulous employers and seizure of their ill-gotten assets. As the immigration debate has heated up, we have heard repeated charges that ICE is failing in its work-site enforcement efforts because the number of employer fines has decreased. In fact, our efforts have grown more robust. What has changed is our strategy.

One thing we have learned from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is that simply fining employers for hiring illegal workers doesn't work. INS agents invested substantial time and effort in issuing proposed administrative fines against unscrupulous employers, only to see the fines ignored, paid in an untimely manner or reduced to nothing. For many employers, these fines amounted to a cost of doing business. They were no deterrent.

We can achieve far greater respect for the law among employers by bringing criminal prosecutions and seizing assets derived from illegal employment schemes. The prospect of 10 years in federal prison and losing that new home and car to forfeiture has much sharper teeth than a small fine. This is the future of work-site enforcement. So how does this new approach differ from the strategy employed by the INS?

Take the Kawasaki restaurant chain in Baltimore, for example. In March, ICE executed warrants at three Kawasaki restaurants and four related residences, where we found 15 undocumented workers living in deplorable conditions. The restaurant owners exploited this cheap, illegal labor to maximize profits so that they could purchase luxury vehicles and other assets for themselves. ICE agents arrested the owners on criminal charges of money-laundering and harboring illegal aliens. We also seized eight luxury vehicles, 10 bank accounts and at least one home purchased with proceeds from this illegal hiring scheme. The owners have since pleaded guilty to the criminal charges and agreed to forfeit approximately $1.1 million in assets.

How would this case have been handled in the past? INS agents would have simply conducted an inspection of Kawasaki's employment paperwork, which would have led to a minor fine based on paperwork violations. The maximum penalty would have been approximately $20,000, and the owners would have escaped without even misdemeanor charges. In many cases, such a fine would have been negotiated down considerably.

Already this fiscal year, ICE has arrested more than 382 people on criminal charges in work-site enforcement cases and apprehended another 2,100 on immigration violations. In fiscal 2002, the last full year of the INS, the total number of criminal arrests in work-site enforcement cases was a mere 25, while the total arrests for immigration violations numbered 485.

The president has requested $41.7 million in new funds to strengthen work-site enforcement efforts in fiscal 2007. These funds would support the hiring of an additional 171 special agents and 35 support personnel dedicated solely to work-site enforcement investigations.

ICE continues to watch the immigration debate in Congress with great interest. It is our hope that Congress will give full consideration to increasing civil penalties in work-site enforcement cases, as well as new access to Social Security "no-match" information. These steps would allow ICE to be alerted when companies are notified by the Social Security Administration that they have submitted Social Security data inconsistent with information on file -- often an indicator of an illegal worker problem at a company.

As the largest law enforcement agency in the Department of Homeland Security, ICE takes its responsibilities seriously. While most employers want to do the right thing, those who don't should know that they will face the full array of the agency's law enforcement tools and authorities.

The writer is assistant secretary of homeland security for immigration and customs enforcement.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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