Rumors of Immigrant Round-Up Abound

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Rumors of random round-ups of illegal immigrants have kept many undocumented workers and their families at home in the past week. The Department of Homeland Security says is stepping up investigations of employers who hire illegal workers, but denies it is conducting random sweeps.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott. Monday is the day immigrant advocates have set aside for a work and school boycott to push their campaign for legalization of undocumented workers. But over the past week, businesses and schools around the country have already noticed a decline in the number of immigrants showing up for work and class. It's not part of any demonstration, but the result of a growing fear that the federal government is rounding up illegal immigrants. The Reverend Lydia Hernandez is with Manos De Cristo, a volunteer group that, among other things, teaches English as a second language in Austin Texas.

Reverend LYDIA HERNANDEZ (Executive Director, Manos De Cristo): When we had ESL classes, there were very few students who came. They recounted story upon story about the fear that exists; children not going to school, mothers not wanting to go the bus stops to pick up their children.

ELLIOTT: It appears the stories of immigrant crackdowns are unfounded rumors, but these stories are spreading around the country. In Madison, Wisconsin, several schools reported up 50% absentee rates. Ken Syke, with the Madison Metropolitan School District, told Wisconsin Public Radio that officials were calling families to reassure them their children will be safe.

Mr. KEN SYKE (Madison Metropolitan School District): It will be a significant number, hundreds, yes, but we think it's important for students to be in school Obviously, it's very difficult to learn if you're not in school.

ELLIOTT: The rumors of widespread immigration raids started after an announcement by the Department of Homeland Security on April 20th that it had arrested more than 1100 illegal employees at IFCO Systems, a distributor of wooden pallets. Here's how Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff, described the roundup.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Secretary of Homeland Security): The largest single worksite enforcement operation against a company in American history. In fact, we arrested more people in this single worksite enforcement operation than in the entirety of last year.

ELLIOTT: Chertoff said the arrests signaled the start of a more aggressive federal crackdown on employees who hire undocumented workers. A press officer with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, said today that agents are not conducting random sweeps, as feared. But, she said, they are absolutely stepping up the number of investigations. Attorney Laura Reiff co-chairs the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. It represents trade associations whose members often rely on immigrant labor. Reiff says workplace absences were a problem this week.

Ms. LAURA REIFF (Co-Chair, Essential Worker Immigration Coalition): Well, we have had reports from our trade associations memberships coming back into our information databanks that some employees are frightened and not showing up to work because of the rumors that there might be raids.

ELLIOTT: When did they start to notice this?

Ms. REIFF: Well, it's been over the last week, actually, the anxiety started right after the secure border initiative announcement that Secretary Chertoff and Julie Myers announced; I believe it was about a week and a half ago. And then there were additional raids at the IFCO Systems sites and then the rumors, I think, started flying about potential other raids across the country. And that's kind of frightened some of the employees of some of our members.

ELLIOTT: Now where are you getting these reports from?

Ms. REIFF: Well, they're coming in, again, like our trade associations have hundreds and hundreds of members. And so their members, from, California to Illinois to Florida to Ohio are reporting into the trade associations and we're trying to gather the information to try and track down any rumors and see whether any of this stuff is actually happening.

ELLIOTT: And what are you finding out?

Ms. REIFF: Well, it's interesting. It seems to be mostly rumor and innuendo. It doesn't appear to actually be additional raids. There have been some audit letters that have gone out and I've seen some of those, but they're routine audits that are actually routinely conducted.

ELLIOTT: Now, ICE did make it clear though, that it is increasing the number of investigations into businesses that hire illegal workers.

Ms. REIFF: Absolutely, and we have actually talked with Department of Homeland Security and White House about this and the Business Coalition actually has absolutely no problem with enforcing the immigration laws against these egregious bad actors. And that's what we've been told. They're stepping up the investigation of folks, employers, that use undocumented workers as a business model and that means intentionally, knowingly, willfully bringing in undocumented workers.

ELLIOTT: Can you give us some specific examples of what you're hearing from your trade groups?

Ms. REIFF: Well, we've heard rumors that there are ICE agents at the metro stop near the Verizon Center in downtown Washington. And a lot of the fast food restaurants are missing their employees because those rumors kind of spread very quickly, like fire. We've heard rumors that in South Florida that there are random audits and sweeps that are planned throughout Southern Florida and the rumors are that many streets and stores are gonna be targeted down there. And so many of the workers, at least these are the reports out of the members of the trade associations, are just deciding to stay home. In Illinois, it was rumored that the ICE agents, DHS ICE agents, were actually going into parking lots and checking IDs in parking lots like Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

So, again, I don't want to fuel the fire, but it is real and we're hoping to kind of quell it and it may require Department of Homeland Security stepping in and making it crystal clear what they're actually doing.

ELLIOTT: So when you get these reports, what do you do? How do you make sure that this is not actually happening?

Ms. REIFF: Well, as I mentioned earlier, we do have a very good working relationship with the Administration, with the White House and we've been obviously working with Congress for many years, so we're compiling lists of things that we consider credible rumors from credible sources and giving them to Department of Homeland Security and they've been kind enough to rundown some of these and assure us that they are rumors, indeed.

ELLIOTT: Laura Reiff is co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a group representing trade associations around the country. Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. REIFF: Thank you, Debbie.

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