National Data | Employer Sanctions Collapse Even Further in 2004

Last year I reported the Bush Administration's extraordinary abandonment of the effort to punish employers for using illegal aliens. Worksite arrests had fallen by a factor of some 97 percent since 1997.

Another year's data is now in, and the Bush Administration's response has been remarkable: worksite arrests have fallen by a further two-thirds.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush Administration just plain doesn't intend to enforce the law against illegal immigration.

But, although it may be hard to remember now, the primary purpose of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was to end illegal immigration. IRCA imposed fines of up to $10,000 for every illegal alien hired by U.S. employers. It stipulated that repeat offenders could be jailed. These tough measures reflected the belief that employer sanctions were the only way to stem the tide of illegals.

That was the plan. Rarely can the gap between policy and performance have been greater.

Today, the INS/Homeland Security's employer-sanctions program has all but disappeared. Here are the key indicators: [Table 1.]

Worksite arrests of illegal alien workers:

 

 

1997: 17,554
  1999: 2,849
  2000: 953
  2001: 735
  2003: 445
  2004: 159

Even in cases where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has evidence implicating employers, the agency tends to back off if the employer pleads ignorance or fights the fine. That's why of the 3,064 workforce investigations closed last year, fines were imposed in just 3 (three!) of them – one out of one thousand. . By contrast, fines were imposed in about 11 percent of  closed investigations in 1997.

Notices of intent to fine employers:

 

1997: 865
  1999: 417
  2000: 178
  2001: 100
  2003: 162
  2004: 3

The low priority accorded to workplace enforcement is clearly evident in the skewed allocation of ICE investigative personnel.

In fiscal year 2004 ICE dedicated about 90 full-time equivalent agents to worksite enforcement, and 2,430 to "all other" investigative areas. Between fiscal 1999 and 2004 the percent of agent work-years spent on workforce enforcement declined from about 9 percent to 4 percent.

So what do ICE agents do?  Since 9/11 INS and then ICE have apparently focused their cadre of worksite investigators primarily on identifying and removing illegal aliens from critical infrastructure sites such as airports and nuclear power plants.

That makes some sense: illegals employed at such sites are easily blackmailed by terrorists. But why not hire more agents?

Moreover, indifference to non-security related workplace enforcement was evident well before 9/11. As seen in the table, worksite arrests peaked in the late Clinton years.

Ironically, the displacement of U.S.-born workers in the wake of the recent hurricanes has further reduced the probability of worksite enforcement. In September DHS announced that for at least 45 days it will not punish employers who hire Hurricane Katrina victims who cannot prove that they are legally in the country.

Ironically, almost half (17 of 37) of Republican lawmakers polled by the National Journal in July listed immigration as the issue most on the minds of their constituents.

Maybe they need to take a trip down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.