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Report: Immigration workplace fines and arrests plummet


When it comes to cracking down on companies that hire illegal immigrants, the federal government appears to be missing in action, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

Between fiscal year 1999 and fiscal year 2003, the report shows that the number of work-site arrests in the United States by government immigration agents fell by 83 percent, dropping from 2,849 arrests in 1999, to 485 in 2003, the last year for which Immigration and Customs Enforcement provided data to the accountability office.

Another indicator of the downward trend revealed in the report was the number of employers who were fined for hiring undocumented immigrants.

In 1999, the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued 427 "Notices of Intent to Fine" to companies across the nation.

But in fiscal year 2004, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was formed in 2003 to do the job of the INS, issued just three such notices in the entire country, according to the report.

State Assemblyman Mark Wyland, R-Vista, said Friday that he was "dismayed" by the numbers.

"We are not enforcing the law and not demonstrating that we are serious about enforcing order and immigration law," Wyland said.

A top official with the U.S. Government Accountability Office said Thursday that the federal government needs to make drastic changes in immigration policy to control illegal immigration, as highlighted by the report, which he helped write.

The Government Accountability Office is an independent, nonpartisan agency within the legislative branch of the federal government that is commonly called the "investigative arm of Congress." It supports congressional oversight by reporting on how government programs and policies are working, auditing federal agencies for effective use of taxpayer dollars, investigating allegations of illegal and improper activities and issuing legal decisions and opinions.

The late August report, entitled "Immigration Enforcement: Weaknesses Hinder Employment Verification and Worksite Enforcement Efforts," shows a third indicator of the downward trend ---- the number of man-hours dedicated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to workplace enforcement.

The amount of time spent on work-site enforcement efforts dropped by 63 percent between 1999 and 2003, the report states.

Accountability office urges reform

Top GAO official Rich Stena, director for Homeland Security and Justice with the accountability office, said that for years the government has focused on enforcement along the nation's borders and security-sensitive work sites such as nuclear plants and airports, but has failed to adequately police other types of businesses that often hire undocumented immigrants.

"What happens is you put everyone on the line of scrimmage and once you get past the line of scrimmage, everyone scores a touchdown," Stena said. "What we really need is an entire reformulation of our immigration policy."

An effective restructuring would have to include several elements, he added, such as:

a method for determining the number of foreign workers the U.S. economy needs.

a reliable worker verification system that would allow employers and the government to know who is authorized to work in this country.

a credible enforcement strategy, so that those who violate the law can be dealt with.

"Right now, we have none of the three," Stena said Thursday. "The question is: How many of those people does our economy require and how do we as a nation get control over the work-site?"

An official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Thursday that she believes the agency is doing an excellent job in the areas that are most important, such as protecting security-sensitive sites in the country and targeting serious criminal activity.

"The story is in post 9-11 era, (the agency) has protected national security and public safety, as well as (making) countless arrests of illegal aliens working at critical infrastructure and sensitive security sites such as power plants, chemical plants, military bases and commercial airports," said agency spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback.

In the last year, they have caught about 150 illegal immigrants at military installations around the country, according to Zuieback.

Wyland says enforce first

Wyland, who is preparing to run for a seat in U.S. Congress next year, said Friday that while he agrees with Stena's calls for a reformulation of immigration policy, he would only support the reform recommendations once the federal government has increased enforcement of the nation's borders and called Mexico to task for what he called its tacit endorsement of illegal immigration into the United States.

"The No. 1 element is showing that you mean business about the border," Wyland said. "Unless we enforce the law, there is no credibility to the rest of it."

He said the U.S. Border Patrol needs to hire thousands more agents to patrol the border and conduct inland sweeps such as the ones it conducted in June 2004. Those sweeps, which resulted in 11,000 people being questioned and 330 arrests in inland communities in San Diego and Riverside counties, caused a firestorm of protest from immigration activists.

"If you dramatically increased the sweeps inland and at the same time insisted with Mexico that (it help reduce illegal immigration), then you could have total reform," Wyland said.

A local immigration activist said that she believes that Wyland is extremist in his views on immigration. She said that the Latino community was outraged by the sweeps and that many people were stopped on the streets by Border Patrol agents simply because they were Latino.

"The sweeps resulted in violations of human rights and racial profiling," said Consuelo Martinez, coordinator for the Escondido Human Rights Committee, which has fought strict immigration enforcement efforts, such as the sweeps.

Causes of declines

The report attributed the decrease in work-site arrests and fines to two main causes: the shifting of agents away from traditional work-site enforcement as the immigration agency focuses on criminal alien cases and homeland security; and the increasing use of falsified documents by illegal immigrants to get work.

Under current law, employers can only be fined if it can be demonstrated that they knew workers' documents were forged.

"Various studies have shown that the availability and use of fraudulent documents have made it difficult for ICE agents to prove that employers knowingly hire unauthorized workers," the report states.

In addition, GAO's Stena said, computers and the Internet have allowed forgers to significantly improve the quality of forged documents that some workers are presenting to employers.

Referring to the drop in work-site enforcement, the report stated GAO officials interviewed several Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and immigration experts, who "noted that the focus on critical infrastructure protection does not address the majority of work-sites in industries that have traditionally provided the magnet of jobs attracting illegal aliens to the United States." Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate have said illegal workers are common in many fields, such as agriculture, hotels and restaurants.

Effects on families

Christian Ramirez, a local advocate for protecting the human rights of undocumented immigrants, said Friday that he agrees with Stena's call for a complete reformulation of immigration policy.

However, he said that whatever the government decides to do, it must not allow increased work-site enforcement to threaten immigrant families already in this country. If a working mom or dad is deported because of increased work-site enforcement, it would have a devastating effect on the children, he said.

"We have to recognize the fact that (some) folks have been living in this country without documents for 20 years, and we cannot separate families," Ramirez said. "Any reform that does not guarantee the integrity of families will fail."