Employers Escaping Charges in Immigration Raids

Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security announced a new strategy for immigration enforcement. It said it would start bringing criminal charges against companies that employ illegal workers. Since then, there's been a dramatic increase in raids on businesses, but few prosecutions against employers.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Two years ago, the Department of Homeland Security announced a new strategy for immigration enforcement. It would start bringing criminal charges against companies that employ illegal workers. Well since then, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of raids on businesses. A raid on Pilgrim's Pride plants, like many others, targeted several hundred immigrant workers, but no company officials.

Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden on governments efforts to prosecute those who employ undocumented workers.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In 2007, officials charged 91 people with knowingly hiring or managing illegal immigrant workers. But grand jury indictments and sentencing hearings don't always make the nightly news. So, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff highlighted some successes at a recent news conference.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The owner of an Indiana business that performed construction services in seven Midwest states, pled guilty to violations relating to the harboring of illegal aliens and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. In January of this year, a federal jury convicted a former human resources director at a poultry plant in Butterfield, Missouri of harboring an illegal alien and inducing an illegal alien to enter or reside in the U.S.

LUDDEN: Just last month, came one of the biggest convictions so far. Three people who headed a Florida-based cleaning firm received two to 10 years in prison. Still, not everyone's impressed. David Leopold is an immigration attorney in Cleveland.

Attorney DAVID LEOPOLD (Immigration Lawyer, David Wolfe Leopold & Associates): With all the talks about enforcement, we've seen a handful of prosecutions publicly. So, the question is what really is their goal here?

LUDDEN: Leopold sees it as a strategy designed to instill fear that's making no real dent in the workplace. But the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie Myers, sees a transformation in the corporate world.

Ms. JULIE MYERS (Head, Immigration and Customs Enforcement): I am very encouraged actually by the number of companies that are coming forward and seeking to change their ways. The meat industry, in fact, is sponsoring best hiring practices seminars all around the country. And I don't think that's ever happened before.

LUDDEN: Most of those convicted for knowingly hiring illegal workers have been the owners of small businesses. The bigger the company, Myer says, the more difficult and time consuming the investigation.

Ms. MYERS: It often will involve doing a search warrant, also having an undercover, then seeing whether or not there are any individuals who will cooperate with us so we can see. Are high-level managers involved? Since we spend a lot of time, a lot of digging, at the end of the day, we find out that there's, you know, rogue HR manager. And so, that person is charged.

LUDDEN: Austin immigration attorney Kevin Lashes(ph) also says the bigger the company the less likely the top executives are involved in the hiring decisions. Until recently, Lashes helped prosecute immigration cases for the federal government. He sees another reason why there may not has been as many prosecutions yet as perhaps the administration would have liked.

Attorney KEVIN LASHES (Immigration Lawyer, Austin): The government hadn't been criminally prosecuting these for a while. So, maybe there's not the kind of training the U.S. attorneys need to be able to make these cases.

LUDDEN: Immigration head Julie Myers says her agencies worked hard to build up such expertise, holding training seminars and putting out a handbook. She does not criticize U.S. attorney's, but does say the Department of Justice has cooperated more in recent months in pushing immigration prosecutions. Myers says businesses should expect more of them.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News Washington.

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