Bush to unveil tighter immigrant work rules

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration plans to announce a broad new initiative today to sharpen immigration enforcement, including measures to raise fines for employers who hire illegal workers, require federal contractors to use an employment verification system and add thousands more agents at the southern border.

Other provisions will restrict the types of documents employees can use to prove their legal status and speed up background checks for legal immigrants.

Administration officials also intend to streamline a cumbersome agriculture guest worker program.


The 25 measures -- some new and some of which expand upon current policies -- come in addition to the expected announcement today of a plan to crack down on illegal immigrants by forcing employers to fire workers with discrepancies in their Social Security information.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has signaled for weeks that the administration would take independent action to deal with illegal immigration after the Senate failed to pass broad immigration reform in June.

“We are currently looking at all of the tools we have, without congressional action,” he told the Associated Press this week. “We’re going to see where we can sharpen some of those tools up. We’re going to throw every enforcement tool we have into this issue of trying to address our immigration problem.”

Business groups expressed dismay at the proposals and suggested they could hurt the economy, particularly in industries like agriculture and construction, which are heavily dependent on immigrant labor.

“I wish that the employer community had been consulted about some of these proposed regulations and had had more opportunity in shaping how they were rolled out and implemented,” said Laura Foote Reiff, a co-chair of the Business Immigration Group. “We’re still hopeful that the administration will work with us on enforcement.”

White House and Homeland Security officials would not comment Thursday.

Today’s announcement is expected to paint in broad brush strokes with few details, but an administration outline of the proposals indicates a multipronged effort.


The Department of Homeland Security will ask states to share driver’s license photos and records with an electronic employment verification system called E-Verify that federal contractors will be required to use. The administration will encourage states to make more use of E-Verify and will expand the system to allow access to more data sources.

The department will also add more border personnel, adopting figures suggested by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) during the immigration debate.

Gregg proposed putting 20,000 agents on the border, up from about 12,000.

A Homeland Security funding bill passed by the Senate in July would pay for up to 23,000 border agents.

Other measures include a study to determine how to prevent immigrants from claiming Social Security credits for work done while they were illegal. Social Security officials estimate that illegal immigrants contribute $7 billion a year to Social Security.

The administrative provisions will boost fines by 25% for employers who hire illegally; current penalties range from $250 to $10,000 per violation.

The Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services will organize conferences for volunteers who help immigrants become citizens and the Department of Education will develop a free Web-based program to help immigrants learn English.


Immigrant advocates said the administration also has been quietly sounding them out about creative ways to bring more temporary workers into the country.

The administration has long argued that creating a legal way for foreign workers to enter the country is essential to border security, as it would free Border Patrol agents to concentrate on catching criminals.

“As long as there’s jobs here that Americans aren’t doing, people are willing to get in the bottom of 18-wheelers and take advantage of this whole coyote system,” President Bush said this week, using the nickname for human smugglers.

Bush, who directed Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez to work intensely on the Senate’s immigration bill, said he “predicted, after the comprehensive immigration bill went down, that there would be blowback and it would start with employers who are saying, ‘Where am I going to get my peach pickers from?’ ”

The administration will streamline a temporary-worker program for seasonal workers, such as those who shell crabs or staff summer resorts.

It will also extend the length of visas for highly skilled workers from Canada and Mexico from one year to three.


The H2A program for temporary farm workers will also be overhauled.

The program is loathed by the agriculture industry for being heavily bureaucratic.

With farmers nationwide facing an estimated labor shortfall of 35% and estimated crop losses of $5 billion this year, they have little faith the administration’s plans will make a difference.

“An easier H2A program? I would have to see it to believe it,” said John Baillie, a Salinas vegetable farmer.

“That’s like saying they are coming out with an easier income tax form.”

Baillie said that, if the administration fails to help businesses find immigrant workers, it may finally impel Congress to act on comprehensive immigration reform.

“Maybe they will do all this, and when the workforce doesn’t show up for work, the politicians will finally realize what the problem is. It is not just going to be on the farms -- you will see it in Las Vegas, in construction and in many other industries,” Baillie said.


Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch in Los Angeles contributed to this report.