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Advisory Group Urges Freeze on Construction of Border Fence

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009 2:26 PM

Members of an influential Washington think tank today recommended major changes in the nation's immigration policy, including freezing construction of a security fence along the U.S.- Mexican border and suspending "zero-tolerance" prosecution programs against all people caught crossing segments of the border.

The Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan group whose presenters included former U.S. immigration chiefs under both parties, recommended 36 steps the Obama administration can take without congressional approval to alter policies developed during the Bush administration. The policy experts also urged withdrawing a plan to pressure employers to fire workers with suspect Social Security numbers.

One of the group members, Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, informally consulted with Obama aides during the transition. Janet Napolitano, President Obama's Homeland Security Secretary, has already announced a broad internal assessment of DHS policies.

"Regardless of how or whether Congress and the White House ultimately come to agreement on new immigration legislation, the DHS immigration agencies require policy and operational changes to improve their effectiveness and ability to implement existing laws," said Meissner, a co-author of the MPI report, titled "DHS and Immigration: Taking Stock and Correcting Course."

Donald Kerwin, MPI vice president for programs and co-author of the recommendations, said the report was intended to provide "a middle course" for the administration, between enforcement-only advocates who seek to restrict immigration and business and immigrant community advocates who seek less fettered flows of people. The report limited itself to immediate steps DHS can take without further reorganization.

Overall, the authors suggested that DHS target enforcement against criminal networks that sustain large-scale illegal migration and that could aid terrorists; against employers who rely on illegal workers to gain unfair competitive advantage or whom terrorists may attempt to infiltrate; and routinely bring criminal charges against individuals only when they are repeat-offenders or have committed unrelated crimes.

By contrast, the Bush administration quadrupled criminal prosecutions of immigration violators between 2003 and 2008, to 79,400, in part through programs such as Operation Streamline, which filed minor charges against virtually all people caught crossing parts of the Texas and Arizona borders. Advocates say such programs are an effective deterrent that reduce illegal crossing.

Critics say that the government lacks the resources to sustain the strategy and that it diverts resources from more serious crimes such as drug and human smuggling, accounting for about half of total U.S. criminal cases, more than referrals by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency combined.

The MPI report recommended halting such programs until Department of Justice and Homeland Security officials determine if they reduce illegal immigration across the entire border or prevent prosecution of more serious crimes.

So far, Napolitano has signaled a greater focus of enforcement resources against employers and immigrants who have committed other crimes, and defended DHS efforts to complete the last 10 percent of 670 miles of fencing planned for the southern border.

The MPI report said the border project is expensive, controversial, poorly coordinated and behind schedule and should be reassessed.

It also urged the withdrawal of a proposal to pressure employers to fire workers who are the subject of Social Security "no-match" letters, indicating their work papers may be involved in fraud, saying the program may duplicate other enforcement efforts and discourage workers from correcting honest mistakes. The Obama administration has delayed its response, until April 10, to a lawsuit filed by business and labor groups in federal court in San Francisco to stop the proposed regulation.

Instead, the MPI report recommended extending voluntary compliance with E-Verify, an electronic government system that lets employers check new hires' work and immigration documents, and that relies in part on the same Social Security data.

The House stimulus bill proposes to make E-Verify mandatory for all employers receiving funding under the package, while the Obama administration has delayed a pending regulation to make it mandatory for federal contractors for review.

Bush officials often said that tough immigration tactics were necessary to restore the public's faith in government and Washington's credibility. Kerwin and Meissner said their recommendations also will build confidence in DHS's ability to enforce laws already on the books and to undertake the challenge of any broad congressional overhaul.

"The immigration agencies in DHS have strengthened the security of the immigration system substantially ... but that is not enough," Meissner said. An effective legal immigration system is also in the national interest, central to the country's values, economic strength and social integration, she said.

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