Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Immigration: Enforcement or Politics?

Immigration: Enforcement or Politics?

Jazmin Zavala, an office cleaner in King of Prussia, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb, expected a regular shift when she reported to work July 31. But her day turned to worry when her employer, ABM Industries (ABM), called a mandatory employee meeting at 4:30 p.m., the time workers usually collect their checks.

Zavala, 22, says that when she and 50 other workers arrived at the meeting, an immigration official dressed in plainclothes said into a megaphone, "You belong to ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)." Several officers then checked each worker's identification, releasing those with proof of U.S. citizenship and searching those remaining. Men were handcuffed and escorted into a police truck, while women, including Zavala, were arrested and fitted with ankle bracelets. "It was horrible," Zavala said through a translator. "As they were searching me all I could think about is my [4-month-old] baby. I don't understand because we are not criminals, only workers."

"Culture of Compliance"

Zavala, who entered the U.S. illegally in 2001 from Mexico City, is now waiting for a letter from the agency about her fate. She lives with her mother and two young children in Norristown, Pa.

ABM spokesman Tony Mitchell declined to discuss the particulars of the event, but says the San Francisco-based company complied with ICE in the enforcement action. ICE spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery confirmed that agents questioned each individual about his or her immigration status and that those determined to be illegally present in the U.S. and working illegally were arrested, following normal procedures.

The raid at ABM is one of the most recent in a series of stepped-up enforcement actions in recent months by ICE, a branch of the Homeland Security Dept. While workplace raids were rare just a few years ago, ICE has posted record enforcement action in the last 12 months; in fiscal year 2007, it made 863 criminal arrests and 4,077 administrative arrests. That's up more than 800% since 2002, when there were just 25 criminal arrests and 485 administrative arrests.

The agency's aim, says ICE Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, is to show employers and workers that until new immigration laws come into effect, the agency will steadfastly enforce existing law. "Our goal is to create a culture of compliance," says Myers. "The IRS doesn't audit every tax return in the country, but the threat of an IRS audit is enough to compel most people to do the right thing."

Policy Shift

But critics say ICE's actions are more about politics than law enforcement. Following Congress' failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform in June 2007, the Bush Administration has turned to the Homeland Security Dept. to show it's serious about enforcing current laws. President Bush strongly supported the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007—written by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and the White House—which called for a legalization program for undocumented immigrants with an eventual path to citizenship. A fierce public debate ensued, as did a rift in the Republican Party, with the majority of the party's conservative base opposed to the bill because of its legalization provisions. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee and a co-sponsor of the 2007 bill, now uses tougher rhetoric on the campaign trail, saying law enforcement and border control are top priorities.

Appearing tough could help Republicans win votes in November, but immigrant and worker advocate groups consider ICE's tactics harsh and inhumane. Following a May 12 raid of the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa—the largest-ever workplace raid, with 389 worker arrests—the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony July 24 about the lack of adequate access to legal counsel for the workers arrested in that and other actions. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) called on President Bush to place a moratorium on ICE raids, comparing the agency to the "Gestapo."

"Something really shifted in the Bush Administration once it realized comprehensive immigration reform was not going to pass on its watch," says Peter Markowitz, professor of law at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. "When they saw the public policy battle was lost, they moved instead to public relations. The strategy now is to shore up the Republican base by demonstrating a big, flashy show of force." Markowitz says he thinks the strategy, which he dubs "tokenism," will backfire, as the GOP risks becoming associated with an "unforgiving and unreasonable approach to immigration."

Special Attention to Certain Industries

But ICE administrators say their efforts are by nature more symbolic than comprehensive. Myers says a variety of factors points the agency to a particular workplace, from information given by informants and undercover agents, to tips gathered on hotlines and calls from employers who feel competitors have an unfair advantage with undocumented workers. Some industries that get special attention include critical infrastructure, service and hospitality, meat processing, and construction. "We go where the evidence takes us," Myers says.

She declined to say what information led ICE to ABM, but ABM spokesman Mitchell says the company cooperated with the agency. "Our policy is full compliance with the law," he says. "When ICE informed us that some of our employees had gone outside the law by providing false documentation, we cooperated with them on the enforcement action."

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