U.S. Immigration Agency And Deportation

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Some 600 illegal immigrants were arrested in a major federal raid at a Mississippi manufacturing plant recently. The Bush Administration charged only eight of the immigrants criminally and sent the rest for civil deportation proceedings. Host Liane Hansen speaks to NPR's Jennifer Ludden to find out if this signals a shift in administration policy.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Hundreds of illegal immigrants are being processed for deportation after a raid on their workplace in Mississippi two weeks ago. Some 600 workers were arrested at Howard Industries which manufactures electrical distribution equipment. It was the largest such workplace enforcement action so far. But it also seems to signal a retreat by the Bush administration. In another raid this spring, a large group of illegal immigrants received criminal charges, but not this time. NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration issues. She joins us now. Jennifer, explain the change.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Well, Liane, in May at a meatpacking plant in Iowa, 260 some illegal immigrants were charged with aggravated identity theft which is a relatively new law passed by Congress. It carries a two-year mandatory minimum. They got this charge because they had used false identification to work at this packing plant. And they were sentenced in a plea deal to five months in prison then, before being deported.

Now, the Immigration Agency got a lot of bad press out of this. Criminal lawyers, immigration lawyers said this was inappropriate. This law is meant for people who steal someone's ID and then, you know, go on a shopping spree or something, not for someone who uses a fake social security number to work. This time in the raid in Mississippi, we've had nearly 600 people arrested. Only eight of those face this charge of aggravated identity theft. The rest have been just given administrative charges and put into deportation proceedings, as was the tradition until very recently.

HANSEN: Do government officials say why they're changing strategy?

LUDDEN: They don't acknowledge they're changing strategy. They say there is a good deal of discretion on the part of prosecutors, so that could be the explanation. But this whole notion of bringing criminal charges against illegal immigrants is a matter of some debate in courts. It's been happening here and there in the past couple of years. And six appeals courts have ruled on it, and they've split.

In one case that was argued in Iowa, the lawyer said that, you know, his client had no idea that a social security card that he bought off the street had a number that actually belonged to a real person. And the use of this charge against immigration - in immigration cases has been appealed to the Supreme Court. So we'll have to see if the court takes it up.

HANSEN: You know, there have been many of these immigration arrests in workplaces in recent years. Is this a policy that either a President McCain or a President Obama would continue?

LUDDEN: It's hard to say. Neither one has said specifically to my knowledge. But we can read between the lines here. And certainly, Barack Obama has criticized the raids. He's spoken out against them. I think his wife has spoken out against them. In the Democratic Party platform that has just been approved, there's a sentence that says it's a problem when we only enforce our laws against the immigrants themselves with raids that are ineffective, tear apart families, and leave people detained without adequate access to counsel. And the party platform calls for a cracking down on employers.

Now the Republican Party platform calls for enforcement against both employers and employees. It talks about smarter enforcement at the workplace. So you can presume that maybe these raids are more likely to continue under a President McCain. Although one analyst I spoke with today believes that it would be hard for a President Obama to stop them altogether.

HANSEN: What are some of the other differences in the candidates' positions on immigration?

LUDDEN: The main one really is about the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants that are in the country now. The Democratic Party platform, that was just approved, talks about bringing them out of the shadows and allowing them to become legal if they pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English, and then go get in, you know, the back of that proverbial line to get their visa, which is the exact measure that Senator John McCain had proposed in recent years.

Now McCain, on the other hand, has pretty much renounced his immigration legislation. He's been hounded by members of his own party who don't want an amnesty. The Republican Party platform says we oppose amnesty. And so, Senator McCain - candidate McCain has been talking much more about simply enforcement. And his party platform suggests that if there is just increased enforcement, then some illegal immigrants here could be persuaded to go home and others convinced it's not worth the effort to come.

HANSEN: NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration issues. Thanks a lot.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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