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Delay in Immigration Raids May Signal Policy Change
But Obama also faces pressure from conservative lawmakers and many centrist Democrats, who say that workplace enforcement is needed to reduce the supply of jobs that attract illegal immigrants, and that any retreat in defending American jobs in a recession could ignite a populist backlash.
When the White House announced plans last week to move more than 450 federal agents and equipment to the border to counter Mexico's drug cartels, lawmakers warned Napolitano against diverting money from workplace operations.
Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the administration "appears to be using border violence as an excuse" to undercut immigration enforcement in the nation's interior.
"It makes no sense to take funds from one priority (worksite enforcement) to address a new priority (the growth in border violence). This is just robbing Peter to pay Paul," Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, said in an e-mail.
Led by Byrd, Congress this year ordered ICE to spend $127 million on workplace operations, $34 million more than President George W. Bush had requested. Reducing those amounts, even in ICE's overall $5 billion budget, would provoke a fight, senior aides in both parties said.
Napolitano has sought to chart a middle course by ordering a review of which immigrants are targeted for arrest. While a policy is still under development, Napolitano has said she intends to focus more on prosecuting criminal cases of wrongdoing by companies. Analysts say they also think ICE may conduct fewer raids, focusing routine enforcement on civil infractions of worker eligibility verification rules.
Former Bush administration officials said their raids were also targeted against supervisors, but that it took time to build complicated white-collar cases. In the meantime, they said, depriving companies of their workforces and in some cases filing criminal charges against illegal immigrant workers sent a clear message of deterrence to both management and labor.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks to reduce immigration, said Obama aides are trying to manage the issue until an economic turnaround permits an attempt to overhaul immigration laws.
"I think their calculus is, how do they keep Hispanic groups happy enough without angering the broader public so much that they sabotage health care and their other priorities?" Krikorian said.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group, said that to the contrary, groups such as his support Obama's focus on going after bad employers and criminal illegal immigrants first -- or as he put it, prioritizing "drug smugglers, not window washers."
Within ICE, the front-office vetting of cases has led to some doubts. Last week, for example, ICE postponed plans to raid employers at a military-related facility in Chicago for which they had arranged to temporarily detain as many as 100 illegal immigrants, according to one official. A second official said Napolitano thought the investigative work was inadequate.
The raid would have been the second under the Obama administration. After the first, a Feb. 24 sweep of an engine-parts maker in Bellingham, Wash., that led to 28 arrests, Napolitano publicly expressed disappointment that ICE did not inform her beforehand and announced an investigation into agency communication practices.
In response, Leigh H. Winchell, the ICE special agent in charge in Seattle, wrote an e-mail to his staff -- subsequently leaked to conservative bloggers -- saying they had acted correctly. He also copied a statement from House Republicans calling Napolitano's review "beyond backwards."
"You did nothing wrong and you did everything right," Winchell wrote. "I cannot control the politics that take place with these types of situations, but I can remind you that you are great servants of this country and this agency."