In an April 19 and 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, following a one-year investigation. 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.
As Washington made its points on illegal immigration, immigrants and their supporters sent a message of their own last week. Nationwide, more than a million people attended "A Day Without Immigrants" rallies. Many employers closed their plants or stores in anticipation of large-scale absences.
In Los Angeles, for instance, American Apparel closed its textile factory downtown to allow its 3,000 workers participate in the rallies. "We do not want workers to have to choose between their loyalty to the company and loyalty to their personal interests," CEO Dov Charney said.
On the employer-enforcement front, Stewart Baker, assistant homeland secretary, met late last month with leaders of a business coalition advocating immigration reform. Baker said that the agency is concentrating its crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers as a core business strategy.
"I do feel confident they’re not using this as a tool to raid and/or audit good-
actor employers," says Laura Foote Reiff, co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition and a partner at Greenberg & Traurig, a Washington, D.C., law firm. Reiff attended the White House meeting.
Its reassurances notwithstanding, the agency has said it will continue work site crack- downs.
"We are investigating other companies as we speak here today," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at news conference last month.
The IFCO case represents a new approach to enforcing workplace immigration laws, he said. Instead of fining employers, the department will file criminal charges and seize assets.
DHS has asked Congress to fund 200 more work site enforcement officers and allow it more access to Social Security information. The department currently has about 5,000 agents.
Politics plays a role in DHS’ get-tough stance, according to one immigration lawyer. President Bush, who is pushing Congress to agree to an immigration reform bill that includes a guest worker provision, needs to sway conservatives who want an enforcement-only bill.
"To gather more support, he’s trying to show tough enforcement," says Mike Beattie, an attorney at the Employee Rights Law Group in Fairfax, Virginia. Work site enforcement "will continue through this session of Congress, because there’s a disagreement between President Bush and red-meat conservatives in the House."
The Senate failed to produce an immigration bill before its spring recess on April 7, but leaders are trying to cobble together a compromise. The House passed legislation in December that centered on strengthening border security.
Reiff is optimistic that the Senate will approve a measure by the congressional Memorial Day recess. "Republicans are under a heck of a lot of pressure to pass a comprehensive bill," she says. The president "wants this as a legacy issue."