Immigrant rights groups blasted President Obama on Wednesday for breaking what they called his “personal commitment” to change Bush-era immigration raids after U.S. authorities raided an engine machine shop in Washington state and detained illegal immigrants.
The Obama administration itself seemed taken aback by the raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano vowing to Congress that she would “get to the bottom of this.”
“The secretary is not happy and this is not her policy,” a Homeland Security official said Wednesday evening, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the secretary’s review is ongoing.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said “these raids are not a long-term solution.”
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“Secretary Napolitano is conducting a thorough review of ICE, including enforcement,” Mr. Shapiro said. “The president believes we must respect due process and our best values as we enforce the law. The real answer to our broken immigration system is to fix it. The president has said that we will start the immigration reform debate this year, and this continues to be the plan.”
The raid in Bellingham, Wash., was the first major workplace enforcement action since Mr. Obama took office, but the second time a law enforcement action has angered the White House.
A similar backlash ensued earlier this month when the Drug Enforcement Administration raided medical marijuana dispensaries in California, despite Mr. Obama’s campaign pledges not to interfere with state laws on the matter. In that instance, the White House said Mr. Obama hadn’t put his people in place.
Homeland Security stepped up high-profile immigration work-site raids and took steps to improve border security after Congress in 2007 rejected President Bush´s immigration bill, which would have legalized illegal immigrants and rewritten the rules on future legal immigration.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Mr. Obama criticized immigration work-site raids as “ineffective” and said the focus instead should be on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Immigrant rights groups said this week’s raid seemed to go against that.
“This was a fixture of our conversations and demands with him during the campaign. It has always been one that there would be a hold on the raids or a stop to the raids until there was a through review of its effectiveness and whether it has been a fiscally responsible course of action,” said Cynthia Buiza, director of policy and advocacy at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. “This is all about holding public officials accountable to the things they promised during the campaign.”
The National Council of La Raza urged supporters to call the White House and demand Mr. Obama lay out his immigration policy, while the National Immigration Forum said the raid was an unwelcome continuation of Bush administration policies.
“What are Latino and immigrant voters to think? They turn out in massive numbers and vote for change and yet ‘change we can believe in’ turns out to be ‘business as usual,’ ” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the forum.
He called for a halt to the raids while Homeland Security conducts its review of immigration policies.
In a statement, ICE said the raid was the result of a gang investigation.
“Information derived from two gang members previously arrested in an ICE gang operation led to the initiation of the work-site investigation at Yamato Engine Specialists,” said press secretary Kelly Nantel. “Follow-up investigation uncovered a potentially large number of illegally employed workers. ICE conducted the operation in order to identify and if appropriate, apprehend any unauthorized workers and to further determine potential criminal activity.”
Mr. Noorani said “ankle chains and helicopters” were both used in the raid, but Ms. Napolitano denied in her testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee that helicopters were used.
She said she had been briefed on the raid, but still has many questions.
“I want to get to the bottom of this as well, so I’ve already issued those directives to ICE to get me some answers,” she said.
She is still getting her key people in place. Mr. Obama nominated John Morton, a Justice Department official, to head ICE earlier this week.
Ms. Napolitano said she expects ICE actions at work sites to focus on employers “who intentionally and knowingly exploit the illegal labor market.”
“That has impacts on American workers, it has impacts on wage levels, often has undue impacts on the illegal workers themselves, and our ICE efforts should be focused on those sorts of things and we should really have thought through the prosecutions that are going to result and the deportations that will result after any sort of work-force action,” she said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the California Democrat who questioned Miss Napolitano on the raids, said the laws need to be enforced but said raids, including Tuesday’s, have swept up legal residents and citizens as well.
“There is concern that Americans have repeatedly, in the past years, been held in some cases for 10 and 11 hours against their will, and it does not seem to comport with the requirements of the law or the Constitution,” she said, asking the secretary to address that issue in her review.