INS to Cut Workplace Raids, Target Employers


The Immigration and Naturalization Service is making a major change in the way it pursues illegal immigrants, reducing workplace raids and concentrating instead on investigations of employers suspected of collaborating with smugglers and on audits of company employment records.

The agency said that the shift is meant to increase the efficiency of 1,750 hard-pressed agents assigned to enforce immigration laws away from border areas. Another 9,000 Border Patrol agents are assigned to the frontiers with Mexico and Canada.

“There is a new policy, yes,” said INS spokesman Russ Bergeron. “One of the things that will change is how we deal with the workplace. Work-site enforcement will not end, but there will be less emphasis on it because it is not productive.”


Limited resources, questionable effectiveness and adverse publicity seem to be behind the change. With an estimated 5.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States, INS workplace raids catch only a tiny proportion--14,500 of more than 100,000 deported in 1998. Another 1 million a year are turned back at the border.

News of the shift created a stir in immigrant communities across the nation last weekend because of a translation error that exaggerated its impact. A widely distributed Spanish-language report by the Associated Press--since corrected--implied that INS was abandoning efforts to detain illegal workers who have settled in the United States.

Immigrant-rights groups had a lukewarm reaction to the policy, but conservatives who favor strict immigration enforcement denounced the shift as a surrender by the immigration agency.

“It looks to me like INS is waving the white flag,” said Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas), chairman of a House Judiciary immigration and claims subcommittee. “By any common-sense definition, it is a retrenchment, a scale-back, a cutback.”

But Joel Najar, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, said: “The idea that this is an amnesty is not based on reality. It is a significant change in that you can look forward to less violence in these raids, but you will still see undocumented workers losing their jobs . . . and constantly afraid of any governmental authority.”

Bergeron said that INS agents will concentrate on identifying and apprehending employers who collaborate with smugglers and document-forgers to bring illegal workers into the country.

The agency also will conduct more audits of company employment records to ferret out illegal workers. A federal law requires new hires to show their employers proof of citizenship or legal residence. A recent series of audits of employer records in Washington state led to the firing of hundreds of orchard workers whose papers were suspect. Though no one was immediately deported, the INS action got national attention.

“Over time, this will make it more and more difficult for somebody who is in the U.S. illegally to remain here,” Bergeron said.

The agency will continue to assign its top priority to deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records and to breaking up smuggling rings, he said.

The changes, already in place in some INS areas, including Southern California, will be phased in across the country over a five-year period.

Virginia Kice, INS spokeswoman for the Western United States, said: “Our officers have been employing this approach for several years. We’ve been focusing on working in a cooperative vein with employers. That’s one of the key components of a pilot program implemented in Southern California.

“We established electronic verification programs that have enabled employers to use software provided by the INS to verify the legal work status of newly hired employees. Well over 100 employers have participated in this program during the past few years. . . .

“This highlights an agency-wide shift away from what are commonly referred to as raids and a greater emphasis on identifying egregious violators and creating a workplace that doesn’t present opportunities for undocumented workers,” Kice said.

Congress will assess the new INS policy in coming weeks; more changes are possible. In fact, the changes arose partly in response to a demand by the House Appropriations Committee that INS develop a new enforcement strategy in the interior of the country.

“We still work work-site enforcement,” explained Kenneth Pasquarell, district director in San Antonio, where the change has been made. “But we try to tie that in with employers who are having people smuggled in to their place of business. We’re trying to tie work-site enforcement into something more meaningful.”

With 78 agents, Pasquarell’s leading priority is finding and deporting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes. “If I was the average person on the street, I would expect INS to do something about the criminal element first,” he said.

Pasquarell suggested that he is not totally comfortable with fewer workplace raids but he understands that it is a question of how best to use a limited number of agents. “We do as good a job with our resources as we can,” he said.

“There is somewhat of a misconception that apprehending aliens from work sites is or has been or should be the primary method by which we draw down the undocumented population,” said INS spokesman Bergeron.

At the same time, the raids generate ceaseless controversy for INS, prompting the agency to set stricter guidelines for conducting the operations.

Nonetheless, a sweep last month at a factory in Ventura County has led to a federal investigation into charges that INS agents addressed Latino workers as “Pedro,” called an Orthodox Jew “rabbi,” and threatened to shoot a handcuffed employee if he tried to run.

About 20 INS agents initially rounded up some 180 workers at Wilwood Engineering Inc. in Camarillo, which makes disc brakes. Company officials, who are demanding an apology, said that 10 employees were detained and three of those later were released.

Linton Joaquin, litigation director for the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles, said it will take months to assess the true impact of the new INS policies.

“We don’t seem to have the level of raids that we had in the past, but it’s hard to say what that represents,” Joaquin said.

Paperwork audits that lead to firings are equally problematic as a replacement, Joaquin added. “INS’ databases are not very good and, if the message is going out to fire people, that’s very troubling,” he said.

Times staff writer Miles Corwin contributed to this story from Los Angeles.


INS Workload

The most recent figures about illegal immigrants and enforcement of immigration policies:

* An estimated 5.55 million illegal immigrants live in the United States today.

* The number of illegal immigrants settled in the United States increases by an estimated 275,000 a year.

* The United States removed 169,072 illegal immigrants in 1998, up from 114,285 in 1997.

Source: Immigration and Naturalization Service