ICE Numbers Belie Obama Promise on Immigration Enforcement
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The Obama administration had long promised to shift the focus of immigration enforcement from workers to employers.
In real terms, that means less of the high-profile raids like those at electronics and meatpacking plants in Postville, Iowa and Laurel, Miss. that characterized the last years of the Bush administration. Those led to the arrests of hundreds of immigrant workers, but only a trickle of employer prosecutions.
Instead, as John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security under President Obama, promised in a rare public speech earlier this year at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., his agency would “focus on the employer” and pursue “aggressive criminal and civil enforcement against (employers) who knowingly violate the law.”
“But it hasn’t been done,” said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA).
Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worksite arrests appear to be trending down, worksite raids continue. I-9 or Employment Eligibility Verification audits designed to spot unauthorized workforces have leapt in number. Meanwhile, ICE’s own statistics — which the agency shared with New America Media — show that the agency’s efforts to investigate employers have yet to yield an increase in prosecutions.
In fact, the opposite happened — ICE brought less charges against employers in 2009 than it had the previous year.
In the 2008 fiscal year, still under President Bush, ICE brought criminal charges against 135 business managers, supervisors and owners as part of immigration investigations.
In the next fiscal year — which ended in September 2009 after President Obama’s first eight months in office — ICE brought criminal charges against 114 employers, a 16 percent decrease.
Clearly, “white-collar” cases against employers who profit from the broken immigration system are harder to prove than run-of-the-mill immigration arrests.
But the number of employer cases appears as a “miniscule proportion” when set alongside the total prosecutions initiated by ICE, said Williams of AILA.
Taken together, the total number of ICE cases referred to the federal courts ballooned to 20,411 in fiscal year 2009 — a 12 percent increase over the prior year — according to data from the Transactional Records Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
These prosecutions take in everything from counterfeit toothpaste to drug trafficking, but the bulk of the cases were relatively minor immigration charges. Just over half (10,346), according to TRAC, were for entry or re-entry of undocumented immigrants.
The large number of lower-level immigration prosecutions has immigrant advocates worried that the agency's focus is still on quantity rather than quality.
Of course, new priorities take a while to trickle through a law-enforcement agency as large as ICE. The agency has more than 7,000 agents and is the federal government’s second-largest investigative force after the FBI.
“They are trying to do what they say they're trying to do,” said Donald M. Kerwin, Jr., vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute. “Give them a couple of years to turn the ship around.”
It may be well be that this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1 2009, proves a turning point for worksite enforcement.
In December 2009 ICE prosecuted 6 percent fewer total cases than in the same month the prior year, a drop driven mainly by a decline in charges for illegal entry, a charge for which those convicted are rarely sent to prison, according to TRAC.