Months ago, an ambitious attempt to overhaul America's immigration system failed in Congress, and there is little talk of reviving the proposal anytime soon. Absent reform, some federal agencies are redoubling efforts to enforce existing laws and crack down on the hiring of illegal aliens. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, the moves are eliciting few cheers from the business community, defenders of undocumented workers or even those who favor a hard-line approach to combating illegal immigration.
Recent months have seen a flurry of raids by federal agents on American businesses suspected of hiring undocumented workers. From a Massachusetts leather factory to meatpacking plants in more than a half-dozen states to a vegetable processing facility in Oregon, immigration enforcement agents have detained thousands of mostly-Hispanic laborers believed to have entered the United States illegally. Factory owners face prosecution and, if found guilty of knowingly hiring undocumented workers, must pay hefty fines.
The Department of Homeland Security says all employers must scrutinize their workers' legal status. Specifically, businesses must check that Social Security numbers, a basic requirement for employment, match the names listed by the Social Security Administration. Employers will also be able to verify photographs contained in official documents, like permanent residency cards, through a database containing images of those documents at the time they were issued.
Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff announced the procedures a few weeks ago.
"This way you will be able to determine that the person has not phonied up the document or substituted a phony photograph for a real photograph," he said.
The Social Security Administration says more than $500 billion of earnings were reported last year by individuals whose names do not match their Social Security numbers. In some cases, dozens of workers in multiple states have been found to be using the same number. Authorities say identity theft and forged documents are common tactics used by illegal aliens to get jobs, with businesses often looking the other way to secure inexpensive labor.
Chertoff has a simple message for employers who ignore the law.
"We will come down on them like a ton of bricks," he warned.
Business groups complain that they are being forced to act as immigration agents, and that the federal requirements will cause a worker shortage in key economic sectors, bringing production to a standstill. In agriculture, already there are reports of fruit and vegetables going unpicked, rotting on the vine.
As a result, some American farmers foresee huge financial losses, and a few are contemplating selling their land and moving overseas, according to Austin Perez of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
"You are going to see more agriculture outsourced," he said. "You are going to see more food grown in foreign countries. You are going to see [food] prices go up in some places. I do not think that is what Americans want."
You might think that those who favor restricting immigration would applaud the new enforcement initiative. But many see the effort as too little too late. They note that President Bush has never taken a zero-tolerance approach to illegal immigration, proposing instead to give millions of undocumented workers the chance to stay and legalize their status.
"Symbolism can only go so far here," said John Keeley of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "We need to see real achievements, and we need to see consistent enforcement of immigration law. The Bush administration is coming to an end. They are getting to enforcement belatedly, to put it charitably. The American people have wanted something significant and something consistent done about illegal immigration for many years."
Immigrant rights advocates worry the enforcement initiative will promote racial and ethnic discrimination, causing some employers to eliminate Hispanics and other minorities from their workforce, including those with legal status.
The basic problem stems from piecemeal federal immigration efforts, according to Eleanor Pelta of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"The problem with that approach is that it really does not resolve the root cause of the issue that we have in the United States today," she said. "You can have an all-enforcement regime, but it is not necessarily going to relieve the pressure at the border. It is not going to make the United States less of a magnet for those who want to come here and find better lives and contribute to our economy, contribute to our society."
Bush administration officials readily admit that current immigration enforcement efforts are less than ideal. But they say that, absent congressional action to overhaul the immigration system, they have no choice but to enforce existing laws as best they can.