WASHINGTON - In its announced clampdown on companies that hire illegal workers, the federal government has arrested in the last year nearly four times the number of people that it did two years ago, but only 2 percent of those arrests involved criminal charges against those who hired the workers, according to a year-end tally prepared by the Department of Homeland Security.
Fewer than 100 owners, supervisors, or hiring officials were arrested in fiscal 2007, compared with nearly 4,900 arrests that involved illegal workers, providers of fake documents, and others, the figures show. Immigration specialists say the data illustrates the Bush administration's limited success at delivering on its rhetoric about stopping illegal hiring by corporate employers.
"I know what it takes to get a criminal case," said Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, a former state prosecutor and member of the Senate homeland security committee. ". . . Why is it that hundreds of bar owners can be sanctioned in Missouri every year for letting somebody with a fake ID have a beer, but we can't manage to sanction hundreds of employers for letting people use fake identities to obtain a job?"
Bush administration officials have promised to strike at the job "magnet" luring illegal immigrants into the country, a goal supported by specialists across the political spectrum. "The days of treating employers who violate these laws by giving them the equivalent of a corporate parking ticket - those days are gone. It's now felonies, jail time, fines, and forfeitures," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at a Nov. 6 news conference.
In a year-end review this month, Chertoff added that an enforcement crackdown will "make a down payment on credibility with the American people," whose "profound public skepticism" about government efforts to control illegal immigration helped kill a broad, White House-backed overhaul in the Senate this summer.
But even though Homeland Security has ratcheted up its enforcement effort, this year's 92 criminal arrests of employers still amount to a drop in the bucket of a national economy that includes 6 million companies that employ more than 7 million unauthorized workers, several analysts said. Only 17 firms faced criminal fines or other forfeitures this year.
In one case in October, Richard Rosenbaum, the former president of Rosenbaum-Cunningham International, a Florida-based nationwide cleaning service, pleaded guilty to harboring illegal immigrants and conspiracy to defraud the government, agreeing to pay more than $17 million in restitution and forfeitures.
For decades, political opposition by the businesses that rely on such workers and by the communities where they are employed has helped water down the laws and other tools needed for a more sustained, less scattershot effort.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement "has gotten the message that employer enforcement is essential. . . . Nonetheless, the numbers show the chronic failure of employer enforcement under current laws," said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the former US Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 through 2000 and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
"The whole point of employer sanctions is to punish those who provide jobs - the primary incentive - to illegal workers. That goal continues to be largely unmet," Meissner said.
Late in the Clinton administration and early in the current administration, the number of illegal immigrants arrested in worksite cases fell - from 2,849 in 1999 to a low of 445 in 2003 - but there has since been a rebound. The number of criminal cases brought against employers fell from 182 to four over that time. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Immigration and Customs reported the 92 criminal arrests, including 59 owners and 33 corporate officials, human resources workers, crew chiefs, and others in the "supervisory chain."
Of the remaining 863 criminal arrests, nearly 9 in 10 involved workers and other people accused of identity theft or document fraud, money laundering, providing transportation or documentation to illegal workers, or other crimes. Criminal fines and other payments grew from $600,000 in 2003 to more than $30 million in 2007, but they were dominated by a few large payers.
The enforcement agency's director, Julie Myers, who served as chief of staff to Chertoff when he led the Justice Department's criminal division from 2001 to 2003, wrote in response to McCaskill's criticism last fall that it takes time to build criminal cases, and that Homeland Security's tougher, criminal enforcement approach is "fundamentally different" than the weak administrative fines and pin-prick raids that resulted from a congressional backlash against actions against corporations in the late 1990s.
In an interview, agency spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery said Immigration and Customs focuses on "egregious" violators whose business models rely on hiring illegal immigrants, especially those whose practices may promote fraud or border breaches.
McCaskill called such arguments an excuse for not punishing big-money business and farm interests who want cheap labor, effectively penalizing law-abiding business owners and exploiting illegal immigrant workers. "The reality simply doesn't match their rhetoric," McCaskill said, who began pressing the enforcement agency to release the employer statistics in September.
In a memo last week, a consortium organized by party consultants Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan, and James Carville known as Democracy Corps warned Democratic incumbents, candidates in House and Senate battleground districts, and presidential hopefuls that they "ignore the [immigration] issue at their peril."
"If leaders do not show their own frustration with the problem, they will not be heard on this issue - and many others," they wrote. "There is particular appeal for cracking down on unscrupulous corporations that exploit illegal and legal workers."
The Bush administration has said it is trying to improve its Internet-based E-Verify program, through which less than 1 percent of US employers now voluntarily check new hires' Social Security numbers. It is also fighting major American business, farm, and labor groups in federal court to use Social Security data generated when suspect numbers are submitted to the government - "no-match" letters sent to millions of workers - as a sweeping nationwide enforcement tool.
A federal judge blocked the program from going forward in October, but the government is appealing. The Bush administration is also attempting to modify its plan to mail "no-match" letters to 140,000 employers to meet conditions set by the judge.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which seeks less immigration and has opposed the Bush administration's proposals for giving legal status to some illegal immigrants, said the importance of a sustained crackdown involving both raids and the "no-match" program "is to change businesses' expectations, in order to change their behavior."
"Past enforcement actions have been regarded by business correctly as a passing thing. . . . They need to believe it's not just going to go away in a couple of months," Krikorian said.