Enforcing federal laws against hiring illegal immigrants has come to a virtual standstill even as a new effort to combat illegal-immigrant smuggling takes off.
Despite a high-profile bust of Wal-Mart contract workers last month, statistics show that Arizona employers are rarely prosecuted for knowingly hiring illegal workers. Just nine cases were prosecuted in the last four years by the Phoenix and Tucson bureaus of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said Harriet Bernick, the office's spokeswoman.
The situation was also made clear in an Oct. 2 letter to a Mesa woman by an official with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Phoenix.
"While the identification and removal of criminal aliens from the United States remains a top priority, routine investigations related to worksite enforcement and fraud have been placed on hold," wrote Tom DeRouchey, special agent in charge of investigations for the bureau.
“Criminal aliens” are those who have already been arrested once in the United States.
DeRouchey was responding to a letter originally sent to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., by a Mesa resident. The woman, who did not want to be named for this article, wanted authorities to arrest her co-worker's husband. She claims the man is employed illegally at a Chandler fast-food restaurant and is using a citizen's Social Social Security number fraudulently.
In turning down the woman's request for enforcement, DeRouchey stated that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks caused immigration enforcement efforts to focus chiefly on national security. After the attacks, the U.S. Customs Service and Immigration and Naturalization Service were combined into one bureau ICE and placed under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security.
Bureau officials admitted they stopped the routine collection and verification of employment paperwork about four years ago.
But DeRouchey said he did not mean to imply in his letter that bureau would not investigate credible tips that a business is knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. All tips are saved and may be investigated later, he said.
“We utilize the resources we have for the more egregious cases,” he said.
DeRouchey's letter represents the “political reality” of hosting an illicit work force of more than 8 million people in the United States, said U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
“If they did serious workplace enforcement, you'd be putting the hurt on a lot of businesses out there,” Flake said. “It's been a wink and a nod. The federal government has said we realize there's a need for labor, and we're just not going to enforce it.”
Flake is scheduled to hold a news conference today in Washington, D.C., with other members of Congress to discuss a proposal that would allow guest workers from Mexico and provide more workplace enforcement.
Thousands of new Border Patrol agents have been deployed along with the latest in surveillance technology since a crackdown on illegal immigrants began in the 1990s. Experts say the tougher border enforcement is partly responsible for hundreds of dehydration deaths in the Arizona desert and has led to the evolution of a ruthless new smuggling trade.
On Nov. 4, the same day as a visit to Phoenix by Mexico’s President Vicente Fox, four people were shot to death on Interstate 10 in the worst example yet of a crime wave tied to smuggling-related violence in the Valley. Officials kicked off Operation ICE Storm soon after, doubling the number of bureau agents in the Valley to about 100 to investigate the crime syndicates involved in people-smuggling.
All but ignored by immigration enforcement, however, is the reason the people risk their lives to come to America in the first place — jobs. Once immigrants navigate safely past the dangers and find a job, the chances of being caught by federal authorities are almost nil.
Rooting out terrorists and violent criminals has become their highest priority, but work sites are still investigated when national security is at state, said bureau spokesman Russell Ahr.
In the last two years, bureau operations Glowworm and Tarmac focused on illegal immigrants working at 109 businesses connected to airports and the Palo Verde nuclear plant west of Phoenix, Ahr said.
No fraud cases have been investigated by the bureau in the last two years because none have involved national security, counter-terrorism or criminal aliens, he said.
But it is national policy, not the bureau's, that is responsible for lax workplace enforcement, said John Keeley, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based, Center for Immigration Studies.
Keeley pointed to two operations by the INS in 1999 as examples. In those cases, the agency targeted illegal workers at meat-packing plants in Nebraska and onion fields in Georgia. The programs ended up victims of their success. Members of Congress and local political leaders decried the actions as disruptive to commerce, and Hispanic groups protested that Hispanic immigrants were being singled out.
Yet Americans cannot be tough on illegal immigration and give workplaces a “free pass” at the same time, Keeley said.
“You have got to send a consistent message of enforcement by conducting work-site inspections,” he said. “It's just as important as border policing.”