Employers to be focus of immigration enforcement
By Matt O'Brien
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 04/30/2009 04:51:03 PM PDT
Updated: 04/30/2009 05:33:07 PM PDT

OAKLAND — As organizers prepared for today's fourth anniversary of a nationwide march for immigration reform, the Obama administration on Thursday told immigration agents across the country to focus their attention more on employers than on the illegal workers they hire.

The guidelines reflect a new focus "to target, through criminal prosecution, abusive employers who cultivate illegal workplaces by breaking our country's laws and knowingly hiring illegal workers," spokesman Matt Chandler said in a written statement.

Agents will continue to arrest and deport illegal workers during operations, he said.

The change in some of the rules — or at least the philosophy — of immigration enforcement came as welcome news to some local immigrant advocates.

"We have a new president in office," said organizer Andrea Cristina Mercado of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a group for Bay Area immigrant women. "I think there's hope in the community that this is the year we will actually get comprehensive immigration reform."

Also on Thursday, a Senate subcommittee began holding a hearing on proposals to overhaul the country's immigration system, inviting testimony from former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others.

Asked about immigration during a news conference Wednesday, President Barack Obama said he wanted a "more thoughtful approach than just raids of a handful of workers."

While declining to commit to a specific timetable for major changes, he said he sees "the process moving this first year. And I'm going to be moving it as quickly as I can."

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates continued to organize rallies calling for an end to raids and deportations of undocumented workers. Organizers expect at least 1,000 people to march through Oakland today, with others gathering in Hayward, Martinez and San Francisco.

Saturday will mark the anniversary of the biggest Bay Area immigration raid in recent history, the arrest of 63 workers at 11 branches of the San Ramon-based El Balazo restaurant chain.

A year later, El Balazo owners have not been charged. Some former employees have been deported, and at least 25 remain in the country while lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union defend them in deportation proceedings.

Mercado said she was disturbed last year that the Balazo raids happened just a day after the immigration protests and as many Mexican-Americans were preparing for Cinco de Mayo celebrations. ICE has said the timing was coincidental.

How the new guidelines would affect an operation such as that one was not clear, but officials were clearly trying to shift focus.

"The prospect for employment in the United States continues to be one of the leading causes of illegal immigration," Chandler said. "This is a clear message to the millions of businesses who play by the rules, but find themselves competing against others who enter the illegal labor market, that help is on the way."

Matt O'Brien covers immigration and demographics. Reach him at 925-977-8463.