As debate over immigration continues to heat up, much of the focus so far has been on the existence of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. The Senate recently examined a different angle on the issue, toughening sanctions against the employers who hire illegal workers.
Twenty years ago, sweeping immigration legislation, known as the Immigration and Reform Control Act, was passed into law. There were three million illegal immigrants in the country then, and the predominant concern was how to control immigration.
The Department of Homeland Security's Stewart Baker told the Senate Judiciary subcommittee the situation today is much the same - only now, his agency estimates the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has quadrupled, to about 12 million people.
He says the 1986 act made it illegal for employers to hire people who had entered the country unlawfully, but he adds that that measure has not been effective. "We thought just making it illegal to hire illegal immigrants and requiring ID would solve the problem. Instead, employees who wanted jobs or who were here illegally, just got fake IDs. They made up fake Social Security numbers, and that was the end of the enforcement mechanisms," he said.
Baker said he supports the institution of an electronic verification system, through which his department can cross-check names and Social Security numbers with the Social Security Administration. But he also called for tougher penalties on employers who break the law. "As the President [Bush] said, some of the penalties that are in the law now are less than a speeding ticket in many jurisdictions. We've got to substantially increase those, and we've got to particularly increase them very aggressively for repeat offenders," he said.
The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement department, or ICE, has been stepping up its efforts against employers who hire illegal workers. ICE's Julie Myers told the senators about a March raid that resulted in criminal charges and heavy fines against the owners of a restaurant chain that employed undocumented workers and kept them in living conditions she described as deplorable.
"At the same time that the aliens were suffering, the owners of these restaurants had created a lavish lifestyle for themselves, purchased themselves several houses, fancy cars. Fortunately, the ICE agents were able to criminally arrest them on money laundering charges and harboring illegal aliens for commercial advantage. We seized their assets. We seized eight luxury vehicles and ten bank accounts. The owners have since pleaded guilty to these felony charges, and agreed to forfeit approximately $1.1 million in assets," she said.
Myers said ICE also conducted raids in April and May, with similar results. She added that this differs sharply from the past when employers would have been issued only a small fine. "The owners would have likely escaped even a misdemeanor charge and the maximum fine would have been $20,000 or $30,000. And, in many cases, that would have been negotiated down to something even further. With such a paltry end result, it is not surprising that the old employer sanction regime had simply become a cost of doing business," she said.
As U.S. lawmakers discuss immigration reform, immigrants rights groups say they are concerned that lawful immigrants could become victims of stepped-up enforcement efforts.
Cecilia Munoz, of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, points to errors in the system that still need to be fixed. "In 2002, the Department of Justice conducted a study of the basic pilot and found that a sizable number of workers, who were found by the program not to be work-authorized actually were work-authorized, about four percent of the verifications. If you multiply that by 54 million or so new hires every year, a four percent error rate means about two million American workers every year could face denials and delays in employment because of government error," she said.
She called that an "unacceptable level" and said for groups like hers, building in mechanisms to address errors that affect large numbers of people is an important consideration.