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In Immigration Cases, Employers Feel the Pressure

But Critics Fault Laws as Ineffective

[GRAPH: Immigration arrests, 2004-2008]
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 21, 2008; Page A01

A three-year-old enforcement campaign against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants is increasingly resulting in arrests and criminal convictions, using evidence gathered by phone taps, undercover agents and prisoners who agree to serve as government witnesses.

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But the crackdown's relatively high costs and limited results are also fueling criticism. In an economy with more than 6 million companies and 8 million unauthorized workers, the corporate enforcement effort is still dwarfed by the high-profile raids that have sentenced thousands of illegal immigrants to prison time and deportation.

Stewart A. Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Homeland Security Department, recently told immigration experts the disparity can be traced to ineffective policies that need to be addressed by Congress.

"Companies tell me, 'We have an immigration system that allows us to hire illegal workers, legally,' " Baker said. Asked to defend President Bush's track record, he said, "Why are employers not punished more often? Because the laws we have don't really authorize that."

In the first nine months of this fiscal year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 937 criminal arrests at U.S. workplaces, more than 10 times as many as the 72 it arrested five years ago. Of those arrested this year, 99 were company supervisors, compared with 93 in 2007.

The arrests have led to several convictions, including a union official at a Swift meatpacking plant; three executives of a Florida janitorial services company; a temporary-staffing agency manager for a Del Monte Fresh Produce plant in Oregon; two supervisors of a Cargill pork plant cleaning contractor in Illinois; and seven managers of IFCO Systems North America, a pallet services company, among others.

But Baker's comments acknowledged criticism by labor union leaders, immigrant rights' groups and Democrats about the limits of employer enforcement. His remarks also illuminate why the White House, Congress and some states have scrambled recently to adopt new steps to compel companies to identify illegal workers, and why such efforts will probably remain ineffective.

Political opposition from big business, labor and immigrant and civil rights interests has diluted immigration law for two decades, according to analysts in both parties.

"If you want law enforcement, you have to have laws that are enforceable," said Doris M. Meissner, who headed the former Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Clinton administration. The 1986 law banning the hiring of illegal immigrants, she said, "has just been chronically flawed from the time it was passed."

Raids against Swift packinghouses in six states in December 2006 highlight the administration's strategy to seek criminal indictments and felony convictions against corporate violators. An earlier approach that relied on administrative fines and forfeitures was increasingly dismissed by executives as a cost of doing business.

The tactics used now are similar to law enforcement techniques honed in developing cases against mobsters and drug lords. In June 2007, federal agents wired a Mexican slaughterhouse worker who had been arrested on immigration charges and sent him to call at the home of his former boss at a meatpacking plant in Marshalltown, Iowa.

The informant, nicknamed "Memo," carried a false ID. He told Christopher Lamb, now the plant's human resources manager, that he was free pending a hearing and wanted to return to work.

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