The New Tactics of Immigration Enforcement

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On July 25 when immigration agents descended on Garcia Labor Company Inc., a temporary service company that provides workers to sort freight for ABX Air, it put on notice contractors that knowingly hire unauthorized immigrants for larger companies. Maximino Garcia, president and owner of the company, was charged with 40 counts of knowingly employing unauthorized workers, including conspiracy to commit money laundering. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized $12 million in cash and property from Garcia, who stands to lose it if found guilty. "Criminal indictments like the one unsealed today are the future of worksite enforcement," said Julie Myers, assistant secretary for I.C.E. when the indictments came down.

The move was aimed at the contractors who supply workers for larger companies, and may herald a new enforcement era. When customs merged with immigration under the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003, it brought new expertise to immigration enforcement. Agents are now targeting employers much in the way that the Drug Enforcement Agency attacks drug dealers — going after their possessions, seizing assets in raids, pressing charges of money laundering. But advocates on both sides of the immigration debate say it does little to tackle the broader problem of workers entering into the U.S. illegally.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," says John Keeley, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors immigration controls. Keeley says that even with the new practices, the current enforcement is so small and selective that it amounts to a lottery for those employers who get caught. "The ones who do get selected, they're the ultimate losers because the overwhelming number of American businesses that have been doing this for many years get a free pass."

For their part, the immigration service is trying to strike fear into contractors that serve as a buffer between workers and large companies. In April, the immigration service brought indictments against two temporary-labor companies in Canton, Ohio, a home-builder in Kentucky, and two other Kentucky companies, one of which supplied workers to Holiday Inn and other hotels.

But when the subcontractors are indicted, the larger companies rarely come under fire and when they do, the charges are small and the fines low. A manager for ABX Air, Inc., an independent company that transports air cargo nationwide from its base in Ohio, pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of hiring illegal workers in the Garcia case and agreed to a $10,000 fine. In 2003, Wal-Mart was raided by immigration agents who arrested 250 unauthorized immigrants on cleaning crews at 61 stores in 21 states. None of those arrested were Wal-Mart employees but rather employees of cleaning contractors. Wal-Mart eventually reached a settlement with the government for $11 million. But with sales in the billions, Wal-Mart can absorb the settlement as the cost of doing business.

What the action has done is send a wave of fear among the immigrant community and Hispanics in general further driving workers and businesses that use them underground. "I think what is worrying some individuals is that it will drive this whole industry and workforce into the shadows even more and have more people pay cash instead of checks," Angelo I. Amador, Director of Immigration Policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which favors comprehensive immigration reform.

Keeley of the Center for Immigration Studies says the government should raise the level of enforcement high enough so that the fear of being caught or investigated by the immigration service is on par with the fear of being audited by the Internal Revenue Service. He adds that seizure laws could be useful in preventing employers from hiring unauthorized workers much in the way that IRS audits dissuade businesses from cheating on their taxes. But the immigration service would need more funds and there would have to be real commitment on the part of the Administration, something Keeley says does not exist. "It's not even a policy of triage, the absence of resources are dire," he says.

It remains to be seen whether these raids will be enough to heighten the risk of doing business with cheap undocumented workers against the risk of being caught. It is going to be ineffective in curbing undocumented immigration, says Christina DeConcini, director of policy for the National Immigration Forum, a group advocating for comprehensive reform and a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. "The need for people to fill these jobs is very strong."