Arrests of illegal immigrant workers have dropped precipitously under President Obama, according to figures released Wednesday.
Criminal arrests, administrative arrests, indictments and convictions of illegal immigrants at work sites all fell by more than 50 percent from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009.
The figures show that Mr. Obama has made good on his pledge to shift enforcement away from going after illegal immigrant workers themselves - but at the expense of Americans’ jobs, said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the Republican who compiled the numbers from the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
Mr. Smith, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said a period of economic turmoil is the wrong time to be cutting enforcement and letting illegal immigrants take jobs that Americans otherwise would hold.
“Those stolen jobs should be returned to out-of-work citizens and legal immigrants,” he said. “The Obama administration should put citizens and legal immigrants first, especially when it comes to jobs.”
One area where the Obama administration has made progress was in audits of businesses’ I-9 forms, which jumped 300 percent. Those audits could produce fines in the future, but Republicans said that most businesses consider them a cost of doing business, not a deterrent.
The numbers were released just days after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the administration has made such advances on border security that Congress should now work on legalizing illegal immigrants.
“These statistics reflect a myopic, outdated and distorted view of effective enforcement,” said Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler. “Just a week ago, we highlighted the more than 11,000 murderers, rapists and kidnappers identified in our jails by the Secure Communities program in the last year, nearly 2,000 of which have already been deported. ICE has prioritized its enforcement efforts by focusing on hardened criminals and employers who knowingly hire illegal workers and break the law.”
Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights advocacy group, said Mr. Smith shouldn’t be surprised - this is what Mr. Obama promised to change from the George W. Bush administration, which focused heavily on illegal immigrant workers rather than employers.
He said it marks a major change from former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to Ms. Napolitano, and that it will pay dividends as employers take heed.
“I would argue that Napolitano’s being tough and smart, rather than what Chertoff did, which was looking tough but giving employers a pass,” Mr. Sharry said. “I would suggest Lamar Smith is more interested in expelling millions of illegal workers than truly getting tough on bad-actor employers.”
After Mr. Bush’s efforts to pass an immigration bill failed in 2007, Mr. Chertoff said he would step up enforcement on his own and that workplaces would be a key target.
That led to high-profile raids and drew protests from immigrant rights groups who said families were being separated by the actions.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said those efforts were misplaced and he promised to refocus on unscrupulous employers who made a pattern of hiring illegal immigrants.