CLOSE

Despite promises to go after employers, work site raids authorized by the Trump administration affect workers in far greater numbers.
Hannah Gaber Saletan, USA TODAY

The Trump administration ramped up arrests at businesses suspected of employing undocumented immigrants in 2018, but data obtained by USA TODAY shows that federal agents did so by mostly targeting those working here illegally and not their employers.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were ordered to quadruple worksite enforcement this year, and they did just that. In fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, ICE set 10-year highs for the number of worksite audits conducted (5,981) and criminal charges filed (779).

ICE leadership has claimed its new crackdown is focused on employers and employees equally as part of a balanced approach to worksite enforcement. But the data show that the vast majority of arrests in 2018 were of workers.

The 113 members of management charged with criminal violations in 2018 increased 82 percent from the previous year, but the 666 workers charged with criminal violations increased by 812 percent. The number of “administrative arrests” – those for basic immigration violations that are predominantly used against workers – spiked from 172 in 2017 to 1,525 in 2018. And the 121 federal indictments and convictions of managers in 2018 represented a 10-year low for the agency. 

Greg Nevano, who oversees worksite enforcement for ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations office, said those numbers do not mean employers are getting a pass. He said it simply takes more time for federal charges to be finalized against employers because their cases are more complex and said those numbers will start increasing in 2019 as more indictments are filed.

“We need more time to develop these investigations,” Nevano said.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates on behalf of immigrants, said he’s not willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt given its track record targeting all kinds of immigrants for deportation and the sheer volume of worksite arrests targeting employees over employers.

“When you look at the deployment of prosecutorial resources by the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, it’s clear they are more worried about the undocumented housekeeper than they are about the unscrupulous employer,” Noorani said. 

Story continues below chart

The way ICE approaches worksite enforcement has changed greatly depending on the administration in power. 

Under President George W. Bush, ICE agents focused on large-scale raids that rounded up massive numbers of workers. During his second term, ICE was arresting an average of 3,511 workers on administrative charges each year, according to the Congressional Research Service.

READ ALSO  Jussie Smollett attack hoax thwarted by security cameras, police say

Under President Barack Obama, the focus shifted to auditing employers. During Bush’s final year, ICE initiated 503 audits of companies to examine the paperwork employees must sign verifying their identity and immigration status. During Obama’s first four years, that shot up to over 2,000 audits a year, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Under Trump, ICE has said it would tackle all of the above. During a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation last year, former ICE director Thomas Homan vowed to increase worksite enforcement by “four or five times” by going after both sides of the employment equation.

“We’re going to do it a little different,” Homan said. “We’re going to prosecute employers that knowingly hire illegal aliens, (and) we’re going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers.”

That strategy played out during a raid of a meat-packing plant in Bean Station, Tenn., in April. In that case, 97 workers and the owner of the plant, James Brantley, were arrested.

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Brantley pleaded guilty to four federal crimes, including knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants. Federal agents seized $107,000 in cash they found during the raid that was meant to pay undocumented workers to avoid taxes, he was fined $41,000 by the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration for “serious” violations of worker safety rules, and he could be forced to pay $1.3 million in unpaid taxes during his sentencing hearing in February.

Robert Hammer, who heads Homeland Security Investigations for ICE in Tennessee and oversaw the Bean Station raid, said that case originated as a financial one, and that the immigration violations were “not the overarching goals.”

“While the public’s perception may have been that we solely went in to get (the workers), there was a broader strategy at play here,” Hammer said. 

Immigration experts on both sides of the equation have serious doubts about that strategy.

Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of business owners that advocate for improved guest worker programs, said the increase in worksite enforcement only punishes businesses that are trying their best to operate in an outdated immigration system.

She said the administration should be spending less time punishing employers who are already struggling to find enough employees and more time reforming guest worker programs to make it easier for U.S. businesses to maintain a steady, reliable workforce.

“Of course they have to enforce the law,” Jacoby said. “But as the enforcement in a broken system rises, the absurdity becomes more and more apparent.”

READ ALSO  Veterans Affairs officials grilled on VA police, vet injuries, death

That “absurdity” of the current guest system is one point that advocates on both sides of the debate agree on. Esther Lopez, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 1.3 million people who work in farms, plants, and factories around the country, said the administration should be working with Congress to improve guest worker programs rather than “deliberately targeting” hard-working immigrants.

“It is time for our nation’s leaders to recognize the incredible contributions these workers make to our economy and focus on policies that create good-paying jobs that help every worker success, not tear innocent families apart,” Lopez said.

Derek Benner, the head of ICE Homeland Security Investigations, sees things differently, characterizing his agency’s crackdown on undocumented labor as a border security issue. If undocumented immigrants don’t have jobs waiting for them in the U.S., he said, that will lower the flow of illegal immigration across the border and lessen the power of cartels that control human smuggling routes throughout Mexico and Central America.

That’s why he said the most important number to look at is the increase in audits of companies, from 1,360 in 2017 to 5,981 in 2018.

Benner is in the process of hiring 60 additional auditors to add to the 120 auditors currently conducting worksite audits to increase the number of audits even higher. His agents are doing more direct outreach to businesses about worksite enforcement, using new technology to speed up audits, and creating a more centralized auditing center to streamline the entire process.

The goal, Benner said, is to change the impression business owners have that they’re unlikely to get a visit from ICE to check their workforce. Instead, he wants business owners to fear an ICE immigration audit as much as they fear an IRS tax audit.

“People feel there’s a pretty good chance that their (income tax) return is going to be audited by a computer or seen by human eyes,” Benner said. “People at some point will feel like there’s a legitimate possibility that ICE … is actually going to come audit their employment records.”

CLOSE

Alan Gomez discusses new data that shows that undocumented immigrants in the Unite States have reached the lowest level since 2007.
USA TODAY

 

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2018/12/11/donald-trump-targeted-more-worksites-undocumented-immigrants-immigration-and-customs-enforcement/2263656002/