Work-site Raids Fail to Appease Conservatives

By Staff Report

May. 24, 2006

A high-profile effort by the Department of Homeland Security to crack down on businesses that employ undocumented workers has failed to mollify a House conservative who plays a role in immigration policy. And that response signals the potential difficulty Congress faces in passing reform this year.

From April 19 through May 9, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, arrested owners and executives of three companies across the country. In what ICE called the biggest raid in history, it arrested 1,187 illegal immigrant employees of IFCO Systems North America Inc., a Houston pallet manufacturer.

Those results don’t impress Rep. John Hostettler, R-Indiana, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims. Hostettler criticizes the Bush administration for failing to enforce existing immigration laws.

Hostettler’s position is emblematic of conservatives who were influential in gaining House approval of an immigration bill in December that focused strictly on border security.

In mid-May, the Senate began debate on comprehensive immigration legislation that would include a guest worker program and a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers. Leaders hoped to approve a bill by Memorial Day. The broader Senate approach is backed by President Bush and the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a group of business organizations that argue a strong immigrant workforce is crucial to economic growth. In a national address last week, Bush proposed a new biometric identification card for legal foreign workers. Employers could then verify eligibility, leaving them “with no excuse for violating” immigration laws.

Melding the House and Senate bills into a final measure would require potentially volatile negotiations. The work-site enforcements are seen as a way for the Bush administration to mollify conservative critics who want to crack down on illegal immigrants.

That strategy is not working on Hostettler, who asserts that the immigration debate won’t be decided until voters go to the polls this fall and, he hopes, support candidates who favor tough immigration policies.

“The administration is not focused on workplace compliance,” Hostettler says. “They’re not getting it. They’re not going to get it. This issue is going to have to have an electoral solution.”

In the meantime, Hostettler backs an idea offered by the Center for Immigration Studies. In a new report, the think tank asserts that enforcing current immigration laws would reduce the number of illegal aliens by 1.5 million annually through “attrition.”

A linchpin is mandatory workplace verification. “If enough Wal-Marts and McDonald’s are continually confronted with enforcement of laws on the books today, these folks would comply with the law,” Hostettler says.

Employers ignore immigration laws because they’re rarely punished for breaking them, according to Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

One obstacle to establishing a new respect for immigration laws is mixed signals emanating from the Department of Homeland Security, Hostettler and Krikorian say. Hundreds of illegal workers detained in the IFCO raid have been released. A customs official says that the agency prioritizes the prosecution of employers.

“Congress has only appropriated enough beds for ICE to detain 20,800 illegal aliens at any given time,” says Dean Boyd, a customs spokesman. “In many areas of the country, our beds will be filled with illegal aliens who have committed heinous criminal violations.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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