Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000, according to federal statistics.
In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004, it issued fine notices to three.
The government’s steady retreat from workplace enforcement in the 20 years since it became illegal to hire undocumented workers is the result of fierce political pressure from business lobbies, immigrant rights groups and members of Congress, according to law enforcement veterans. Punishing employers also was de-emphasized as the government recognized that it lacks the tools to do the job well, and as the Department of Homeland Security shifted resources to combat terrorism.
I think that DHS is now headed in the right direction on this issue, focusing on enforcing the law while also recognizing that there need to be legal means for companies to hire non-U.S. citizen workers for jobs that are unlikely to be filled by Americans. But as the story acknowledges, it has a long way to go. Flashy PR-driven mass arrest operations are not the basis for a sustainable worksite enforcement strategy. And there’s a risk that this renewed vigilance will wane if and when immigration and border security issues move out of the public spotlight.
On a related noted, the Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing this afternoon on the topic of worksite enforcement; testimony by the GAO’s Richard Stana includes many of the statistics cited in this story.