Part one of three
SALINAS, Calif. — For years, Carlos lived in fear as he migrated from one farm to another, pursuing the cash that the picking of seasonal fruits and vegetables provided here in the fertile Salinas Valley. But as time passed, so did his anxiety.
“We were always watching out for the Border Patrol, and we were always afraid,” said the 34-year-old Mexican national, chopping lettuce with 20 others. “But not anymore. We’re out here everyday, and nobody ever bothers us.”
Carlos, who came to America in 1996, is one of the estimated 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens living and working in the United States, who have no real fear of ever being detained or deported. And there’s a good reason: No one’s looking for them.
“If they can get by us — and a lot of them do — they know they can go underground, find a job and disappear — particularly in the several cities and towns across the country that have large Hispanic populations,” said a veteran Border Patrol supervisor in Arizona.
“We get one chance at them, and if they elude us, they’re gone.”
A monthlong investigation by The Washington Times, which included interviews with immigration-enforcement officers from Washington state, California, Arizona, Texas and Florida, found that the vast majority of illegal aliens flooding into America — an estimated 1 million a year — draw little attention once they pass through the “border region,” which extends about 60 miles into the United States.
A total of 2,300 federal agents are assigned the task of detecting, detaining and deporting the millions of foreign nationals illegally in this country, who — besides draining billions of taxpayer dollars a year — pose a potential terrorist risk in the post-September 11 world.
Nearly half of the 48 al Qaeda terrorists tied to violent acts in the United States between 1993 and 2001 committed significant immigration-law violations prior to those events but were never detained or deported, federal records show.
“Strict enforcement of immigration law … is one of the most effective means we have of reducing the threat from foreign-born terrorists,” said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies.
Taxpayers each year spend more than $7 billion to educate the children of illegal aliens, $1 billion for health care and emergency treatment, and nearly $3 billion to detain illegal aliens in state and local jails, according to congressional reports and studies by immigration groups and several universities.
“Despite those costs, the country’s interior-enforcement program historically has been neglected and understaffed,” said Michael W. Cutler, a retired U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) senior agent who spent most of his 31-year career as a criminal investigator and intelligence specialist.
“Interior enforcement” is the term used to describe the routine enforcement of U.S. immigration law away from the nation’s borders. It traditionally has included the apprehension of all illegal aliens, inspections for illegal employees at U.S. work sites and sanctions against employers who hire illegals.
“Even now, with as many as 12 million illegal immigrants in the country and a public clamoring for better immigration enforcement, the government has committed far too few agents to the task,” Mr. Cutler said. “We have only been given the illusion of making a serious effort to enforce our immigration law.”
Do the math: If the current roster of 2,300 agents dedicated to pursuing illegal aliens now in the country arrests 500 persons a day, an unattainable goal at current resource levels, it would take from 44 to 66 years to reduce the estimated 8 million to 12 million figure to zero — assuming, of course, that no new illegals enter the United States between now and 2070.
Those staggering numbers are of concern to many U.S. residents and immigration-enforcement groups, including the nonpartisan Washington, D.C.,-based CitizensLobby.com, which advocates stronger border security and increased immigration controls.
In a petition to Congress and President Bush, the lobby said the millions of illegal aliens in the United States pose a threat to national security and called on federal authorities, along with local and state police, to “enforce current immigration laws by apprehending and deporting all illegal aliens back to their country of origin.”
Retired U.S. Army Col. Ben Anderson, whose Arizona-based Web site, “The Anderson Report,” deals in part with illegal immigration, said a massive and ongoing invasion of foreign nationals into the United States through the Southwest border is the result of the government’s failure to properly deal with border security.
“We attribute the lack of real effort to be political, and we fault both the Democrats’ lust for cheap votes and the Republicans’ lust for cheap labor,” Col. Anderson said. “We fault the White House for pandering in a vain effort to glom onto the Hispanic vote.”
But thousands of illegals enter the country every day, aided by a growing political movement that has guaranteed them not only a deportation-free environment but voting rights, driver’s licenses, social services, housing assistance and in-state college-tuition breaks.
Vocal advocates, including 8,000 immigration lawyers nationwide, are trying to win permanent residence for the aliens, their spouses, children and other relatives and to represent U.S. businesses looking to employ foreign workers on both a temporary and permanent basis.
“Future immigrants should also be able to come here legally and safely, have access to permanent residency and not fear criminal prosecution for unlawful entry or exit,” says the Oakland, Calif.-based National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Even Mr. Bush has proposed a guest-worker program that would give some form of citizenship status to millions of aliens illegally in the United States, and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has promised that within 100 days of his election, he will offer amnesty to most illegal immigrants who — like Carlos — have been in the United States for at least five years.
Mexico, the home of the majority of illegal aliens, already has made it easier for its citizens to live illegally in the United States by issuing “matricula consular cards” that can be used as legal identification and to open bank accounts in America.
Widely recognized by states and cities, along with dozens of police agencies, the FBI has said the cards pose a criminal and terrorist threat and are useful only to illegal aliens, because legal immigrants already have U.S.-issued documents.
‘Matter of priorities’
Until March 2003, with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the lead agencies in tracking down the rapidly growing underground of illegal aliens hiding in plain sight across America were the INS and the Border Patrol.
The job now belongs to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which — because of long-standing budgetary constraints — has chosen to focus its efforts on what it said will best protect the public in the age of terrorism and bolster America’s security.
ICE’s immigration priorities include the apprehension and deportation of the 80,000 criminal aliens in America, the arrest of alien smugglers and the dismantling of their operations, and the detention and removal of 320,000 “absconders,” who are foreign nationals ordered deported who have disappeared.
“As a new agency under Homeland Security, ICE is committed to using its resources to ensure the safety of the American public,” said Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael J. Garcia, who heads ICE. “But it is a matter of priorities, based on available resources and the use of those resources where we can have the biggest impact on public safety.
“There is no other option,” he said.
The agency’s interior-enforcement strategy, announced by Mr. Garcia in July 2003, does not address the detention and deportation of the 8 million to 12 million illegal aliens in the United States — about 165,000 of whom are in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
But then it never has.
The new strategy essentially is the same one adopted by INS in the 1990s, which failed, although Mr. Garcia said agency executives — now under attack from many of ICE’s rank and file for what they perceive as a lack of leadership and a clearly defined mission — are seeking to avoid making the same mistakes.
ICE and Border Patrol supervisors and agents said the INS interior-enforcement strategy often ignored its law-enforcement responsibilities in favor of servicing its administrative and management functions.
Mr. Garcia oversees 14,000 ICE supervisors, investigators, field agents, inspectors and support staff from U.S. Customs, INS, Federal Protective Service and Federal Air Marshals Service. The agency replaced the INS, which oversaw the Border Patrol and attempted, with little success, to direct the nation’s interior-enforcement strategy.
The Border Patrol, now part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, immediately was moved out of America’s heartland — where it successfully had targeted illegal aliens and the employers who hired them — and was given the primary task of protecting 6,000 miles of international border against terrorists, aliens and smugglers.
More than three dozen ICE and Border Patrol supervisors and agents, along with former INS inspectors and investigators, seriously questioned the government’s manpower and resources commitment to interior enforcement during interviews at field offices and ports of entry in six states.
An ICE agent in California complained that although there were renewed efforts within the agency to locate criminal aliens and absconders, little work-site enforcement “besides some recent made-for-TV arrests” was being conducted. He and others said unannounced work-site inspections and large fines for employers who hire illegal aliens would drive down the demand for undocumented workers and reduce illegal immigration.
“I would like to think that work-site enforcement was an ICE priority, but it’s not,” said a Border Patrol agent in Texas.
Actually, fewer than 200 ICE agents nationwide are assigned to identify the thousands of employers who hire millions of illegal immigrants every year. And the number of companies fined for hiring illegal workers has plummeted: 1,660 from 1994 to 1998 compared with 440 from 1999 to 2003, according to INS records.
The amount of the assessed fines was $34.5 million during that 10-year period, but INS only collected $14.5 million of it.
Immigration-enforcement authorities and analysts think the Border Patrol’s new forward-deployment policy, which moved the agents back to the border where they will arrest a million illegal immigrants this year, will be effective only if there is a corresponding reduction in employment opportunities through effective work-site enforcement.
“We’re shoveling sand against the tide,” said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents the agency’s 10,000 nonsupervisory agents. “The major draw for those who cross our borders is jobs, and until we can find a way to turn off that job magnet, people will continue to flock to this country.
“In Mexico, the average wage of the people we apprehend is $4 a day,” Mr. Bonner said. “They can do much better by making that 100-yard dash into the United States.”
Law-enforcement authorities and immigration experts think work-site enforcement began to collapse in 1993, at a time Congress and the White House — responding politically to rising public concern over increased illegal immigration — were turning their attention to border enforcement.
They said increased interior enforcement was not an option because neither Congress nor the White House wanted to deal with an avalanche of criticism from unions and employers who would have been exposed to fines and other sanctions — many of whom are huge political donors.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, supports the expansion of temporary visa programs for what it calls “essential workers” and has endorsed efforts to find a way to “earn legal status for the millions of undocumented workers already in the United States.”
The chamber has encouraged Mr. Bush to “resume the migration negotiations” with Mexico interrupted by the September 11 attacks. In those talks, Mr. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox considered amnesty for 3 million illegal aliens in the United States and an abolition of laws barring U.S. employers from hiring border jumpers.
In January, Mr. Bush proposed a separate guest-worker program that eventually would legalize, without penalty, millions of aliens now in the country — making them eligible, but not guaranteeing that they could apply for permanent legal residence and citizenship.
Although ICE and Border Patrol supervisors and agents oppose guest-worker and amnesty programs, several pro-immigration rights groups, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), think the Bush proposal does not go far enough in meeting the needs of the millions of undocumented workers in the United States.
They said the plan is centered on the needs of U.S. employers and not the workers.
“Without an opportunity to earn full citizenship, 8 million immigrant workers and their families will be at the constant mercy of unscrupulous employers,” the SEIU said. “This proposal allows hard-working, taxpaying immigrants to become a legitimate part of our economy, but it keeps them from fully participating in our democracy — making immigrants a permanent sub-class of our society.”
SEIU said the Bush plan should allow illegal alien workers in this country to become permanent residents and should include legislation providing wage and labor protections, family-reunification provisions and a path to citizenship “for immigrants here and those to be admitted.”
Congress approved an amnesty program in 1986 known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) that gave legal status to 2.7 million aliens. The program contained increased enforcement and penalty policies aimed at ending illegal immigration, although the illegal-alien population in the United States today is at least double — some say more than quadruple — the 1986 total.
Although Congress passed IRCA to deter illegal immigration, including sanctions for employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, Mr. Bonner said Congress failed to “give teeth to the law,” instead relying on the good will of employers not to knowingly hire illegal aliens.
Mr. Bonner said employer sanctions and fines need to be re-enforced and increased to encourage businesses not to knowingly hire illegal aliens. He also said a new system needs to be developed to make it easier for employers to identify — or to be held responsible for — fraudulent documents.
“There are as many as 80 different documents a prospective employee can present to an employer that authorizes a person to work, all of which can be easily counterfeited,” he said. “The government needs to come up with counterfeit-proof identification that will enable employers to immediately determine [that] a person has a legal right to work.”
Dan Stein, executive director of the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, said U.S. employers learned by 1988 that INS was not going to hold them accountable under IRCA for hiring illegal aliens.
Mr. Stein said INS downgraded work-site enforcement operations even further in 1994 with what is now known as the Phoenix Plan, allowing the agency — after a review of a company’s files — to give employers the option of firing those named as illegal aliens rather than conducting work-site raids to arrest and deport them.
“The INS defended this method of work-site enforcement as cost-efficient, palatable to employers and ultimately effective in causing the illegal aliens to go home,” he said. “The problem with the Phoenix Plan approach was that the illegal aliens were still in possession of their counterfeit documents and were able to use them to illegally gain employment elsewhere.”
The Phoenix Plan came at a time when the INS was telling its inspectors and Border Patrol agents that high-profile work-site enforcement operations needed to avoid “contentious circumstances” so that employers would not be inconvenienced — such as raiding restaurants at peak service times.
In 1996, Congress recognized that the employer-sanctions program was broken and passed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act to counter the massive use by illegal aliens of fake documents. But the law did not include a system to verify documents, as proposed, only a pilot program to test the feasibility of document verification.
Three pilot programs have been tested since. Last year, Congress extended the pilot project for an additional five years.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, another agency within Homeland Security, has since created a new version of an employment- authorization card to serve as proof that a person is authorized to work in the United States. The card, to be produced at a rate of 24,000 a week, contains a magnetic strip, two-dimensional bar code and other features to help prevent counterfeiting and fraud.
But law-enforcement authorities said similar security features in other cards were quickly copied by counterfeiters. They said the massive use of phony documents has helped circumvent the very process INS designed to prevent illegal aliens from entering America and employers from hiring them.
Mr. Garcia wants to double ICE’s work-site enforcement budget in fiscal 2005, which begins in October, from $20 million to $40 million, hiring an additional 200 enforcement agents. As of now, he said, the focus remains on critical infrastructure and those employers who place their workers in dangerous conditions.
During a recent press briefing, he said that with limited resources, ICE was “attacking the problem as we can, being realistic on what we have and how we can best use it.”
Congress is debating the request.
Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and member of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, border security and claims, said during an ICE oversight hearing that increased funding for work-site inspections was a “step in the right direction.” But he called the 2005 request “a little bit like having two candles instead of one in a blackout… it’s not doing near what we should.”
Mr. Smith said if the government is unwilling to enforce employer sanctions, it will not be successful in reducing the number of available jobs, which he called “the largest magnet attracting” illegal aliens to the United States.
“We make it very, very easy in many, many ways for individuals to stay here who are here illegally,” he said. “That is not the right signal to send if we are, in fact, serious about reducing illegal immigration in America.”
Part two: Outnumbered in a hunt for aliens