A newly revealed law enforcement policy allows illegal immigrants arrested during work-site raids to be released from jail and given work permits in exchange for their testimony against their employers, a House panel was informed Thursday, a tactic one lawmaker described as "de facto amnesty."
The policy was revealed as Democrats pressed to rein in a federal program that trains state and local police to enforce immigration laws, comparing the popular but contentious program to civil-rights-era police collusion with the Ku Klux Klan.
Marcy Forman, director of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) investigative office, defended the work-permit program to the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, saying it "allows the U.S. government to elicit statements of aliens in our custody" to pursue criminal cases against companies that knowingly employ and mistreat illegal immigrants.
"ICE intends to fully utilize its investigative resources and tools and is authorized to investigate and prove cases against employers. We are utilizing all tools available," Ms. Forman said.
The ICE policy angered some House Republicans, who questioned Ms. Forman and other Homeland Security officials about a raid in February at a Yamato Engine plant in Bellingham, Wash., and the subsequent release last week of 24 illegal immigrants who were issued the work permits and allowed to remain in the U.S.
"Questionable enforcement practices such as these send a decidedly mixed message and effectively put illegal immigrants at the front of the employment line," said Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.
The Bellingham Herald reported that the majority of the illegal immigrants were released with documents advising them "that per the assistant United States attorney assigned to this case, all persons involved with the Yamato Engine Specialists ... should be afforded the benefit of deferred action and an employment authorization document, valid for the duration of this case."
The illegal immigrants were screened to ensure they do not present a threat to the U.S., and must check in weekly with an ICE agent.
While Democrats on the panel defended this program, which subcommittee Chairman David E. Price of North Carolina described as "long-standing," other Democrats aimed their sights on the George W. Bush-era program that trains state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
Across the country, 67 communities have signed agreements, including some in the Washington region, and several dozen other communities are seeking to join the program, known as 287(g) because of the section of federal law that governs it.
"The federal government has a duty, just as we did when local law enforcement colluded with the Ku Klux Klan many years ago, to intervene and protect individual rights against local law enforcement if they are violating such rights," Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, said at a joint hearing before two House Judiciary subcommittees.
Even though he wasn't present - Democrats did not invite him to testify - Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona was clearly targeted in the joint hearing. By his own acknowledgment, Sheriff Arpaio has become the "poster boy" for local enforcement of immigration laws.
One of the witnesses was George Gascon, chief of the Mesa, Ariz., police department, which is in Sheriff Arpaio's jurisdiction. Chief Gascon, who opposes the raids, painted a picture of law enforcement overstepping, using SWAT-type teams to round up illegal immigrants including in a raid on Mesa's city hall.
On one occasion, he said, he had to deploy his own officers to separate pro-raid and anti-raid demonstrators at the site of a raid. Chief Gascon said a focus on immigration is hurting Maricopa County's efforts to fight other crimes.
"They're not concentrating on local crime issues, and that is why their crime stats are going as high as they are," he said.
Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican, said the hearing was an attempt to intimidate law enforcement into not taking part in the program - something Sheriff Arpaio said isn't going to happen.
"Everybody is going after me, hoping that I will stop - it will never happen," he told The Washington Times in a telephone interview.
Even if the federal program is revoked, he said, Arizona's laws give him the latitude to pursue smugglers and those who violate the state's tough law against employing illegal immigrant workers.
Sheriff Arpaio seemed to take pride in the fact that he has been an early target of the Obama administration - at the urging of Democrats in Congress, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into his activities - and said if they have problems it's with the federal program and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which administers it.
He criticized the panel's decision not to invite him but to call Chief Gascon instead.
"Why did they call him? Why did they call people against me, two or three? Why didn't they call me? Because you know what, they knew that I would reveal their statements," he said. "They probably got the word, 'Uh-oh, don't call this sheriff because he's going to embarrass all of you.' "
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who chaired the hearing, said lawmakers did not invite Sheriff Arpaio because they saw that he had told a newspaper that he wouldn't attend.
A Government Accountability Office report said 287(g) doesn't have adequate controls to make sure local departments are using the authority consistently, and that some communities are worried the police powers are being used for minor violations or racial profiling.
Meanwhile, at her hearing, Ms. Forman told the House panel that the Obama administration is committed to cracking down on business owners who knowingly employ illegal immigrants.
But after a round of rapid-fire questions from Mr. Rogers, Ms. Forman said the administration is targeting only businesses that exploit illegal immigrants with low pay and subject them to harsh working conditions.
"We're seeing history here today," Mr. Rogers said. "A new policy now says we will not raid or prosecute ... an employer, so long as the employer does not exploit the worker. That is de facto amnesty. If you are treated fairly, we're not going to prosecute," Mr. Rogers said, who added that he was "disgusted."
Rep. John Culberson, Texas Republican, said the approach to worksite enforcement "is just not acceptable." Rep. Ken Calvert, California Republican, asked what percentage of illegal immigrants released under the same policy "just disappear and don't report back?"
Ms. Forman said she could not provide a number, but "I will assure you there is great oversight over these individuals."
Asked about illegal immigrants who flee the program and then find work under new names, Ms. Forman said, "We certainly do our best to seek them out and find them."
Rep. Ciro D. Rodriguez, Texas Democrat, praised the administration's approach to worksite enforcement and said that if the arrested immigrants are deported, they can't testify against the companies that hired them.
"There is a balance there we want to strike," Mr. Rodriguez said.
Mr. Price, chairman of the panel, called it a "contentious and controversial issue" but agreed more focus should be placed on the employer rather than the illegal immigrants arrested in the raid.
"As part of its investigation, ICE has employed a long-standing law enforcement tactic by granting 'temporary immigration status' to certain individuals, which does not permanently change the status of these immigrants; it is a tactic utilized in many past investigations and does not represent any change in worksite enforcement policy," Mr. Price said.
By Rand Paul
Obama acts as though we no longer have a Constitution
Independent voices from the TWT Communities
Viewing and reviewing the Los Angeles experimental and classic punk scene with a nod to Rodney's English Disco
One man’s perspective. Exploration and commentary designed to challenge the conventional thinking of day on the political issues affecting our nation.
First over-the-counter column approved for fast and effective relief from even your worst media-induced headache.
Contributions to the Communities Sports desk from readers.
Benghazi: The anatomy of a scandal
Vietnam Memorial adds four names
Cinco de Mayo on the Mall
NRA kicks off annual convention
California wildfires wreak havoc