How Obama is firing immigrant workers — but not deporting them

While President Obama has moved away from the controversial workplace raids that characterized the Bush era of immigration enforcement, the Obama administration has ramped up audits on employers that hire illegal immigrants. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency is now relying heavily on civil complaints and fines to threaten companies found to hire significant numbers of illegal immigrants.

In a prominent case last year, American Apparel ended up firing some 1,800 immigrant employees — about a quarter of its workforce — after an ICE investigation found irregularities in identity documents. The rationale is that such crackdowns will help deter companies from hiring illegal immigrants — and curb exploitative labor practices that result in low wages and poor working conditions for immigrants.

In line with the rest of Obama’s broad-based crackdown on immigration, workplace audits have actually increased 50 percent since the Bush administration, with fines tripling to nearly $3 million and executive arrests on the rise as well. Nevertheless, some anti-immigration conservatives are up in arms about the fact that actual workplace arrests of illegal immigrants have plummeted under the current administration.

This week, Fox News seized upon a new report that arrests and deportation of illegal immigrations taken into custody at work sites has dropped more than 80 percent from George W. Bush’s last year in office. Fox News cites one former Bush official who slammed the approach as “de facto amnesty,” accusing the Obama administration of “turning a blind eye to entire categories of aliens” fand failing to arrest and deport the illegal immigrants who turn up on these workplace audits.

But even if tougher immigration enforcement is the goal, simply arresting and deporting these immigrant workers en masse doesn’t seem to be a sensible policy solution. Especially in the absence of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, the federal government has limited resources to go after illegal immigration. Taking such constraints into account, the Obama administration has vowed to focus on arresting and deporting immigrants who’ve committed serious crimes, and immigrants who are simply showing up for work are doing nothing criminal. (Unauthorized presence is a civil offense, not a criminal one.)

What’s more, there’s already a major backlog of deportation cases that have yet to reach the courts, as I explained yesterday. It seems unwise and unfair to clog up the legal system with more non-criminal immigrants, particularly as a quarter of those who have already been deported under Obama had no criminal records.

If anything, the Obama administration could be more selective about the kind of employers that are subjected to immigration audits. If the administration were truly committed to targeting the worst offenders in the U.S. immigration system, it would make a more concerted effort to target employers who are truly exploiting their workers. American Apparel, for one, prided itself on providing health care and decent wages to its employees (though the company’s very public advocacy on behalf of illegal immigrants may have also made it a prime target). In other instances, workplace audits have prompted employers to fire both legal and unauthorized immigrants for fear of being penalized by the government, says Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. The federal government’s audits may well be deterring some employers from hiring illegal immigrants, he adds, “But it’s a blunt instrument for doing that.”