MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Here's something many experts believe will disappear or at least become less common under an Obama administration - the spectacle of federal immigration agents raiding a business and arresting undocumented workers. Some Democrats are calling for a moratorium on these sorts of raids. And the president-elect himself has questioned their effectiveness, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The biggest raids, where hundreds of workers were detained, have made national news, but for nearly two years, smaller ones have also been taking place on any given week at companies across the country.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: Operation raids. A major sweep of a popular Bay Area taqueria chain. All 11 of the local El Balazo restaurants raided today. Dozens of undocumented...

Unidentified Woman: One of the hundred people taken in to custody at a printing supply company.

Unidentified Man #2: Eyewitness news reporter Elsa Ramon is live in...

Unidentified Man #3: Dozens of suspected illegal immigrants are under arrest. They were all taken into custody last night during raids on several Rhode Island courthouses.

LUDDEN: In many of these operations, the janitors, meatpackers, or kitchen staff are arrested, but not their employers, a strategy Barack Obama questioned last summer in an interview with the Des Moines Register.

(Soundbite of archive interview)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: I'm not particularly impressed with raids on plants that grab a handful of undocumented workers and send them home, leaving the company in a position where it can just hire the next batch.

LUDDEN: Since the election, advocacy groups have repeated their calls for a moratorium on immigration raids, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has talked of finding a way to end them. Illinois Democrat Louis Gutierrez says those undocumented workers being arrested and deported have millions of family members who are legal residents or U.S. citizens. He says the effect has been devastating.

Representative LOUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): You have single mothers now. You know, you have young 15-year-old kids with no father in our neighborhoods. Think about that a moment. And the government took your dad away.

LUDDEN: The Bush administration actually spent years pushing to legalize undocumented workers, but when a broad immigration overhaul failed in Congress, Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff dramatically ramped up worksite raids along with other get-tough measures. In recent months, a number of studies have shown a big drop in illegal immigration. Chertoff admits the tanking economy played a big role, but he says so has his agency's crackdown.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security) This is a direct result of strong positive enforcement which is yielding measurable results.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Senior Fellow, Migration Policy Institute): I think a lot of what's been going on has been high-visibility disruption for its own sake. I'm not sure that there's a real strategy that is guiding it.

LUDDEN: Doris Meissner is a former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute. She does not think President-elect Obama will end worksite raids, but she does expect the focus to shift to employers, and she foresees a far broader approach. For one thing, Meissner says basic labor law enforcement has languished for years.

Ms. MEISSNER: So I expect that there will be more resources there, and I expect that there will be more emphasis on protecting our working conditions, wages, safety for American workers, level-the-playing-field kinds of considerations.

LUDDEN: Which Meissner says would go a long way toward weeding out undocumented workers. Mr. Obama has also spoken of the need for a reliable way to check workers' legal status, and that's cheered the staunchest supporters of the current government crackdown. Mark Krikorian is with the Center for Immigration Studies.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): Even though I expect the Obama administration is going to dial back on worksite raids, I don't think it's a complete disaster because you're going to see employer-oriented enforcement continuing.

LUDDEN: The Department of Homeland Security has aggressively encouraged businesses to consult a federal database to check workers' legal status. It's a program called E-Verify, which DHS promotes in a number of ways, including funding credits on NPR. Soon, DHS will also require large federal contractors to use the program. Mark Krikorian says that could mean up to 20 percent of all new hires in the country will be checked.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: That's a big deal. I mean, that's starting, at that point, to become a standard labor practice.

LUDDEN: On the other hand, critics complain this program's error rate is too high, and some groups are calling on President-elect Obama to scrap it. That's one more decision for the next administration as it shapes its own immigration policy. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News Washington.

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