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National Data | If Obama Has Stepped Up Enforcement, Why Suppress The Numbers?
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July 21, 2010, 05:00 AM
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"The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies` records for illegal immigrant workers."

[Illegal Workers Swept From Jobs in `Silent Raids` by Julia Preston, New York Times, July 9, 2010]

The New York Times article goes on to describe an apparent paradigm shift in workplace enforcement. Instead of hundreds of federal agents swooping down on a few companies, a handful of agents, armed with computerized payroll and Social Security records, will audit hundreds of companies.

No photo ops. No press coverage. But more illegals displaced from jobs Americans need?

That is the implication.

Evidence? Well, there really isn`t any. We don`t know how many illegals were arrested in the workplace last year or how many were fired by employers seeking to avoid criminal prosecutions. For some strange reason, Immigration And Customs Enforcement`s latest "Workplace Enforcement Overview" does not present enforcement activity for FY2009, the first year President Obama could sway the agency`s agenda.

So the NYT`s Preston merely recycles ICE boilerplate:

"Over the past year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted audits of employee files at more than 2,900 companies. The agency has levied a record $3 million in civil fines so far this year on businesses that hired unauthorized immigrants, according to official figures."

Let`s see. About 7 million illegal aliens are estimated to be working in the United States—so the Administration is fining employers an average 43 cents per illegal alien worker. Not exactly a fearsome prospect.

In fact, this audit approach to interior enforcement is hardly new. The practice peaked in the Clinton years, when, on average, more than 1,000 companies per year were fined for hiring workers with bogus Social Security numbers.

Then, as now, civil fines were trivial—a slap on the wrist for what employers increasingly regard as a mere paperwork violation: putting the wrong Social Security number on a federal form. Employers often pay civil fines without bothering to replace their illegal workers. And who can blame them? Even when ICE has evidence implicating employers, the agency tends to back off if the employer pleads ignorance or fights the fine.

Criminal prosecution, on the other hand, puts the fear of God—and jail time—into employers. Businesses are seized. Fines can be confiscatory—e.g., a restaurateur assessed $734,000 for harboring 24 illegals, an orchard forced to fire hundreds of illegal workers.

Barack Obama talks the talk about criminalizing illegal hiring. In a recent speech he promised the old George Bush two-step: border security and interior enforcement, en route to "comprehensive immigration reform."

But as with Mr. Bush, reality does not match his rhetoric:

"ICE is looking primarily for `egregious employers` who commit both labor abuses and immigration violations, [John Morton, the current head of the agency] said, and the agency is ramping up penalties against them."

Translation: Employers who hire illegals do not face criminal prosecution unless they deny their illegal hires the minimum wage, OSHA, and other workforce protections mandated for legal workers. Give illegals those perks and you`re off the hook.

There seems to be a politically motivated ebb and flow to immigration enforcement activity. Enforcement drops prior to the announcement of comprehensive reform initiatives, the better to demonstrate a "failure to enforce immigration laws already on the books." This was clearly evident in George Bush`s first term; in 2004 only three firms were fined.

Following the collapse of Mr. Bush`s amnesty proposal, enforcement activity ratcheted back up:

In FY2008 (latest available data) 1,103 criminal arrests were made—15-times more than five years earlier.

The graphic is from an ICE press release "Worksite Enforcement Overview, April 29, 2010." The 2009 fiscal year ended September 30, 2009, so enforcement activity for FY2009—Obama`s first—was known and could have been reflected in the graphic. But it wasn`t.

Why aren`t FY2009 enforcement figures shown?

Rosemary Jenks, NumbersUSA Director of Government Relations, implicitly provides what may be the best explanation:

"It is incredibly hypocritical for the President to talk about holding employers accountable when his DHS has basically stopped criminal prosecutions of employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens and has completely stopped worksite raids, and when his Justice Department is asking the Supreme Court to overturn Arizona`s E-Verify law…."

Even with 10% unemployment, Obama considers immigration to be a political rather than an economic issue. As his suit against Arizona showed, enforcing the law means angering his base.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.