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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, faith and politics. How some Democrats are trying to win back the faith vote and a top evangelical leader on whether it's working.

But first, we want to talk about immigration. For years, scenes of immigration raids have been a staple of B movies and TV shows, but that was always more fiction than reality. In the last two years, however, the agency that investigates and enforces violations of immigration law, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, has stepped up its efforts to find and arrest illegal immigrants. They've conducted a series of raids in workplaces and homes across the country.

According to ICE's statistics, in the past two years they've made almost 9,000 arrests for workplace violations alone - within four times the number of the previous two-year period. But these efforts have also sparked intense criticism about the agency's motives and tactics.

Joining me now to talk about all of these, Julie Myers, the top official at ICE, the assistant secretary for Homeland Security.

Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. JULIE MYERS (Assistant Secretary for Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Oh, thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: When you were selected for this post back in 2005, there was some controversy about your experience in running an agency of this size. I'd like to ask, why did you want the job and what do you bring to the table?

Ms. MYERS: Well, Secretary Chertoff actually recruited me for this job. I had worked for him as his chief of staff when he was over at the criminal division. And he thought I would be a good fit in the department because I have a background as a prosecutor, and I have good judgment. I've enjoyed the job, although I knew when I signed up for this that it'd be a huge challenge and it certainly has been. But I think there are tremendous people at this agency, and I'm very proud of the progress we've made.

MARTIN: What's been your biggest challenge?

Ms. MYERS: I think my biggest challenge is building up really the institutional structure that supports the agency. As a brand new agency, there were areas in which we didn't have very basic policies - leave policies, kind of very simple things. We didn't have a lot of kind of agency culture or a strong I.T. or management side. I really worked hard to strengthen that. I appointed the first CSO. I developed an assistant secretary advisory group. And I worked very hard to make sure that the agents, officials, and lawyers have everything they need to do their jobs well.

MARTIN: I want to talk about these enforcement actions that have been - that have gotten so much attention. And it's been illegal to employ undocumented workers since 1986, as I understand it, when Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to employ illegal immigrants. But I think everybody agrees that this provision of the law was rarely enforced. So why wasn't it enforced, and why these stepped up efforts now?

Ms. MYERS: Well, I think in the past, the old INS had really focused on trying to do some enforcement on the civil side, and had used a civil fine structure that frankly was clunky, outdated. It could have cases that would last for several years, and at the end of the day a business who was engaging in egregious behavior could be fined $150.

When I came to the agency, we started looking at how can we be more effective. And we found that when we look at egregious employers - those employers who have as their business model, hiring illegal aliens - you know, they are really deserving of going after them for felony charges, of harboring illegal aliens, and in many cases, money laundering. Often we see that they're dividing up their payments in cash or engaging in other criminal activity while they treat illegal aliens poorly. And so that was kind of the shift in our strategy and I believe it's starting to have effects really in terms of changing the culture and encouraging employers to do the right thing.

MARTIN: And these enforcement efforts have been described, in part, as a way to protect the American workers from the effects of illegal immigrants, who, as you pointed out, can often be more easily exploited. But the United Food and Commercial Workers, which is a large union, back in August held a national meeting to protest these raids saying that the conduct is abusive, that citizens and legal workers are sometimes swept up in these enforcement actions. What do you say to that?

Ms. MYERS: Our agents act very professionally. We work very closely with the Department of Justice and also with our own lawyers to make sure that our conduct is appropriate at all times. But we take very seriously the issue that there is widespread illegal alien employment in this country. And we're determined by focusing on egregious employers, aliens who work at critical infrastructure sites and identity thieves, which is a huge problem - aliens who are stealing the identities of U.S. citizens. We are going after and starting to make a difference on these efforts.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say when people argue that citizens, as well as illegal immigrants, have been inappropriately detained. And there's also, as of course, you know, the complaint that mothers of young children or parents of young children have been detained and whether they have not allowed them to make appropriate arrangements for their children. Children have been, in effect, left at schools and day cares. What - how do you respond to that?

Ms. MYERS: Well, with respect to your - the latter part of your question first, I think, the agency has taken extraordinary steps to ensure that children of illegal alien workers are not improperly affected by the activities. It's unfortunate when parents come into this country and subject their children to this kind of behavior. But we do take many, many steps to ensure that aliens will tell us if they are sole caregiver.

And what we found, Michel, when I first started doing this kind of thing is that although we would ask aliens if they were sole caregivers, and if they told us they were, then we would work to see, if appropriate, we could release and then care for the child. We found many times that they would not tell us the truth. And so what we have done on our larger investigations is we've brought in an arm of HHS, that's DIHS, and they help us do initial medical screening and humanitarian screening to make sure that if aliens are not comfortable telling us right away, that they could tell the DIHS workers.

We also set up a toll-free line in our large operations. And in many instances, we work with Child Protective Services. But we encourage aliens, if they are arrested by ICE, to tell us the truth with respect to their family circumstances…

MARTIN: Do you think there's a cultural gap here? It's my understanding from some of the advocates that these women - in many cases, women are afraid that their children will be detained. Do you think that there's some cultural misunderstanding there about what's going to happen if they do tell the truth or how do you interpret that?

Ms. MYERS: Well, I think a number of aliens do tell us, you know, right away that they are sole caregivers for children but I certainly can't comment on the motives of anyone who would not tell us. I would tell you that we've taken extraordinary steps far beyond what I'm aware had done it any other sort of enforcement action to make sure that children whose parents have engaged in illegal behavior are not adversely affected.

MARTIN: Okay. And I want to talk about these actions in Long Island, New York, as I mentioned, that, you know, there's some law enforcement officials who've complained about what they consider to be overzealousness and - by ICE agents. And I'm sure you know that in Long Island, New York, some local law enforcement authorities are saying that the people conducting raids there displayed a quote/unquote "cowboy mentality," that Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey says that he doesn't want to participate and won't cooperate in any of these unless some of these issues are addressed. Do you - what do you - how do you respond to that?

Ms. MYERS: Well, I think that our actions in Long Island, really, as stated by the Suffolk County commissioner, were very professional actions designed to target criminal aliens in the community. We made 186 arrests in Long Island - 157 of those were arrests of gang members or associates; 59 of these individuals had criminal histories including some violent criminal histories, participating in gang assaults, weapons charges, burglary and the like.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting because they have a completely different view of this. They say that, in fact, it's a tiny minority of people had criminal violations, that most of these were immigration violations. And how do you account for this difference in opinion about who is actually brought into custody?

Ms. MYERS: You know, all I can tell you, Michel, is that we keep statistics and track gang members and associates as the same way we have since day one. We've conducted Operation Community Shield operations all over the country for a number of years.

In fact, we've made almost 7,000 arrests of gang members and associates. And the definitions we use are not arbitrary definitions. They are definitions that were formed at the creation of Operation Community Shield - working with places like California, agencies like ATF, looking at established definitions of gang members and associates, working to rid criminal aliens from the street.

They'll tell you that every person who was arrested, we believe, is illegally here in the country. And obviously ICE has a mission to arrest individuals who are here illegal in the country whether or not they're criminal aliens. But this operation targeted criminal aliens and we believe the fact that the Suffolk County commissioner spoke very highly of this operation. It's important to note, it was the same team of agents. One day, they were in Nassau Country, the next day they were in Suffolk…

MARTIN: And two very different views.

Ms. MYERS: …(unintelligible) country.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I just need to pause here and say if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Julie Myers. She's the assistant secretary for Homeland Security and head of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency, our top immigration official.

And final question to you about the whole question of the enforcement actions aimed at private homes. Earlier this year, I see searched homes in Willmar, Minnesota. Officials there said they were trying to make arrests from 16 outstanding warrants. We talked to two of teenagers whose homes were searched. I wanted to play you a short clip of one of them.

(Soundbite of an interview)

Unidentified Man: It was just a normal day. I was just sleeping. At first, I just thought it was somebody knocking. And then later on I heard, like, more, like, banging on the door. And then once they got in my room, I saw that they were already in and then my mom was there and she was shaking up. And I was, like, what's going on? And they're, like, who lives here? Me and mom, we live here. And they're, like, they told me if I had an I.D. with me, and I was, like, yeah, I have an I.D. - so they took it.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that this is - it's clearly the mission of your agency to search and detain illegal immigrants, but that this kind of action - going into people's private homes - is unbecoming of America and that, in fact, it almost costs the country more than you gain by the image that it presents to people of the way we treat immigrants. How do you respond to that?

Ms. MYERS: Michel, we conduct targeted enforcement actions. When we enter our home, we enter with consent of the homeowner, and our agents act in professional manner. I think it's very sad in this country that the problem of illegal immigration is so large and that we are forced - we are faced with such a kind of large problem. We're attacking it comprehensively. We're focusing on criminal aliens, the magnate of illegal employment and dismantling the infrastructure that supports illegal immigration. We'll continue to work professionally to do what the American people expect.

MARTIN: It is a large problem. And I certainly hope you'll come back and talk to us about it again. We surely appreciate your time.

Ms. MYERS: Well, thanks so much for your time, Michel.

MARTIN: Julie Myers is assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration Customs Enforcement. She joined us from her office in Washington. Thanks again.

Ms. MYERS: Thank you.

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