The Bush administration, which vows to crack down on companies that hire illegal workers, virtually abandoned such sanctions before it began pushing to overhaul immigration laws last year, the Washington Post says. Between 1999 and 2003, work-site enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which later was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 in 1999 to four in 2003; fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000. In 1999, the U.S. initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004, it issued fine notices to three.
The retreat from workplace enforcement in the 20 years since it became illegal to hire undocumented workers is the result of political pressure from business lobbies, immigrant rights groups, and members of Congress. Punishing employers also was de-emphasized as the government recognized that it lacks the tools to do the job well, and as the Department of Homeland Security shifted resources to combat terrorism. The administration says it is learning from past failures, and switching to a strategy of building more criminal cases, instead of relying on ineffective administrative fines or pinprick raids against individual businesses by outnumbered agents. Experts are skeptical that the administration will be able to remove the job magnet that attracts illegal immigrants. “The claims of this administration and its commitment to interior enforcement of immigration laws are laughable,” said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that favors tougher workplace enforcement, among other measures.