‘Zero Tolerance’ for Undocumented Migrants? Not If You Employ Them

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Photo courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

The federal government’s much-advertised “zero tolerance” for undocumented immigration apparently doesn’t extend to employers.

According to data analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, only 11 individuals (and no companies) were prosecuted and convicted in just seven cases between April 2018 and March 2019—and there were no prosecutions during April and May.

The pattern has been roughly the same for the past five years. There were just 11 prosecutions of employers between April 2017 and March 2018, identical to the number of prosecutions in 2013.

Despite claims by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that its worksite enforcement strategy “focuses on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers,” actual prosecutions have been “relatively rare”—and are likely to remain so, TRAC said.

“Given the millions of undocumented immigrants now living and working in this country, the odds of being criminally prosecuted for employing undocumented workers appears to be exceedingly remote,” TRAC said.

And those employers who are prosecuted and convicted are not likely to receive more than “token punishment,” according to the study.

“Prison sentences are rare,” TRAC said. “For example, of the 11 individuals the Justice Department reported as convicted during the most recent 12- month period for which data are available, only three were sentenced to serve prison time.”

TRAC based its conclusions on records obtained from the Justice Department as a result of litigation brought under the Freedom of Information Act.

During the same period of the 2018-2019 study, 85,727 individuals were prosecuted for illegal entry, 34,617 were prosecuted for illegal re-entry, and 4,733 individuals were prosecuted for illegally bringing in or harboring immigrants.

Criminal penalties for employers were first enacted by Congress in 1986, but prosecutions have rarely climbed above 15 annually, TRAC said, adding they “have never exceeded 20 individuals a year except for brief periods during 2005 under President Bush, and in the first year of the Obama Administration.”

“Prosecutions of employers since President Trump assumed office roughly parallel the number that occurred during all but the first year of the Obama Administration,” TRAC added.

The president has in the past advocated “huge” financial penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, or “even beyond a financial penalty,” but media investigations have shown that his hotel and entertainment organization have been equally culpable.

One investigation published last month by BuzzFeed News, for example, found that his Mar-A-Lago golf-club property in Florida rejected job applications from U.S. applicants, and instead hired foreign “guest workers” who were illegally in the U.S. between 2014 and 2018.

Read the full TRAC report here.

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