In an April 19-20 crackdown spanning 26 states, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested seven current and former managers and 1,187 undocumented workers of IFCO Systems North America, a Houston-based pallet services company. The customs agency is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
More illegal workers were apprehended in the IFCO raid than the total of all raids conducted by the agency in 2005. There are an estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States.
Although the charges come as the culmination of a one-year investigation, they were announced at a propitious time for the Bush administration, which is trying to get Congress to approve comprehensive immigration reform.
The Senate was unable to agree on a bill before its spring recess on April 7, but may return to the issue when it convenes on April 24. Conservatives, especially in the House, are calling for a narrow measure that focuses on border security and strict enforcement of immigration laws. The Bush administration favors a broader bill that would include guest worker provisions.
In its crackdown this week, the federal government filed criminal charges against IFCO leaders for conspiring to transport, harbor and induce illegal aliens "to reside in the United States for commercial advantage and private financial gain," according to a DHS statement.
A conspiracy conviction could result in a prison term of 10 years and a fine of up to $250,000 for each undocumented worker.
The move against IFCO represents a new approach toward employer violations of immigration laws, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff said during a Washington news conference Thursday, April 20.
"We’re looking at them in the same way that we’re looking at other criminal groups," Chertoff says.
Instead of fining employers for breaking immigration rules, the department will file criminal charges and seize assets.
"The prospect of 10 years of prison carries much sharper teeth than just a fine," says Julie Myers, assistant Homeland Security secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The IFCO case "will serve as a deterrent to other employers who think they may be immune" from workplace enforcement.
DHS, which has about 5,000 agents, will target companies that adopt systematic violation of U.S. law as a business practice rather than pursue minor violations, Chertoff says. For instance, the government alleges that 53.4 percent of the Social Security numbers on IFCO’s payroll are invalid or mismatched.
But DHS also is extending an olive branch to employers, indicating that a verification system must be set up to help companies identify workers. Myers said that the department would seek "creative ways to cooperate" with business. "Most employers want to do the right thing," she says.
But Latino advocates worry that DHS is doing the wrong thing with its crackdown. Protesters outside the customs office asserted that the United States was violating the human rights of immigrants by arresting immigrant parents and separating them from their U.S.-citizen children.
"It’s incredible what kind of repercussions this causes in the community," says the Rev. Tom Fox, a Franciscan priest who works in Latino outreach for the Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis. "People are wondering what is happening to their loved ones."