Thursday, April 20, 2006

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday announced a nationwide immigration enforcement strategy that will aggressively target employers who “knowingly and recklessly” hire illegal aliens, and those who help them find jobs.

Mr. Chertoff said the goal is to reverse the tolerance of illegal employment and illegal immigration in the United States.

“Americans are rightly concerned about the need to enforce our immigration laws and our work laws in the United States,” said Mr. Chertoff, who has come under fire from Congress and within his own department for what many have described as an ineffective interior enforcement program.

“And that means we’ve got to focus on illegal migration and also on those who flagrantly violate the law by encouraging that migration, whether they do it by smuggling the migrants across the border or by employing them in a systematic fashion once they get into the United States.”

To implement the work-site enforcement strategy, the department has requested $41 million in funds and 200 more U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agents for fiscal 2007, which will increase to about 525 the number of ICE agents assigned to track down more than 11 million illegal aliens now in the United States.

“It’s very simple because the initiative is very clear: Those who comply with the law in the way they employ others have nothing to worry about. They’re in a perfectly safe place,” Mr. Chertoff said. “Those who violate that law are going to feel a tough sanction.”

A description of the strategy by Mr. Chertoff coincided with his announcement yesterday that more than 1,180 illegal aliens had been arrested this week during raids at 40 IFCO Systems North America Inc. plants in 26 states. IFCO, with headquarters in Houston, is the largest pallet services company in the country.

Seven current and former IFCO managers, he said, were charged with conspiring to transport, harbor, encourage and induce illegal aliens to reside in the United States for commercial advantage and private financial gain. Two other IFCO employees were arrested on criminal charges relating to fraudulent documents.

Critics say Homeland Security has done little interior enforcement since the department’s creation in January 2003, despite existing laws that provide sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a July report that ICE issued just three notices of intent to fine an employer for hiring illegals during fiscal 2004 — down from 417 by the now-defunct U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1999 during the Clinton administration.

The report described work-site enforcement as a low priority, although it said the opportunity for employment was one of the “most important magnets attracting illegal aliens to the United States.”

Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE, said the agency will seek to build a “strong compliance and enforcement system for employers,” adding that the agency will continue to “find creative ways to partner with employers” who want to avoid hiring illegal aliens.

“But when we find those employers who don’t want to do the right thing, we’re going to target our criminal efforts and bring all the criminal statutes that we can to bear against them,” Mrs. Myers said. “We’ve learned all too well … that just a small fine or a slap on the wrist is not a deterrent to businesses who want to violate our work-site enforcement laws.”

Mrs. Myers promised “more robust criminal cases” against employers who “blatantly” violate the law.

In touting the new strategy, Mr. Chertoff also said Homeland Security would target and dismantle human smuggling and trafficking organizations, detect and deter immigration-related document and benefit fraud, and expand its criminal alien program to ensure that illegals are identified properly while in custody and removed from the country immediately after serving their sentences.

He said he hopes to increase the number of ICE fugitive operations teams from 35 to 52 by Sept. 30, with an additional 1,000 arrests projected per team, per year; expand ICE’s compliance enforcement unit to better focus on high-risk visa violators; and seek 322 agents for Operation Community Shield in 2007 to better target foreign-born gang members.

The IFCO raids were conducted at plants in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia and Utah.

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