The Obama administration's approach to immigration enforcement is still something of a mystery. The Department of Homeland Security is issuing new guidelines for field agents on how to deal with illegal immigrants in the workforce, and so far, those guidelines are being kept secret. But a recent incident in Washington state may provide some clues.
On Feb. 24, when armed immigration agents raided Yamato Engine Specialists, a small company that rebuilds car engines in Bellingham, Wash., 28 workers were led away in handcuffs. They were illegal immigrants, most of them from Mexico, and they faced quick deportation. It was the first big immigration raid under President Obama, and it came as a shock to many in the Hispanic community.
On Spanish radio, shock quickly turned to anger. "Let's give the Obama administration one month to stop all this," warns one caller, "otherwise, the Democratic Party and Obama will suffer the consequences!"
But the White House seemed almost as surprised by the raid as the workers. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano told Congress she hadn't known about the raid ahead of time, and she ordered a review of it.
Now, one month later, 27 of the 28 workers have been released. One of them — Luis Ramos — says he can't get over how nice the immigration agents have become.
"They treat us wonderfully," Ramos says. "They even say, 'do you want a soda from the machine?'"
The government is offering them temporary work permits, and immigration agents are even giving the Mexicans free rides to Seattle to file the paperwork. Now the anger at Obama is coming from the other side of the immigration debate.
"Not only is this immigration non-enforcement that's going on, he is providing a policy amnesty for illegal aliens that is not supported by the American public and that has not been passed by Congress," says William Gheen, who represents a group called Americans for Legal Immigration.
The Obama administration isn't saying what the policy is yet — officially, it's still under review. But during the campaign, Obama said he'd like to shift the enforcement emphasis to the employers, and that philosophy now seems to be on display at Yamato Engine Specialists.
Raiding, This Time, For Data
On Thursday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials came back, but this time, it wasn't after workers — the blue-jacketed immigration officials had a warrant to search the company's files. They set up special gear to copy the contents of Yamato's computers, and company manager Shirin Makalai watched the process with an air of strained cordiality.
But moving out into Yamato Engine's production floor, Makalai could barely contain her frustration.
"You know, I don't want to say and antagonize the investigation and put us in a worse situation — it's just — it seems there's a very big picture here, and we're in the middle of it," Makalai says.
If the administration is trying to make an example of companies like Yamato, it has its work cut out. Deporting workers is relatively easy; making a criminal case against an employer is harder. Current law makes it relatively easy for managers to claim they didn't know their employees were illegal, so investigators may start looking for other kinds of offenses.
Edgar Rebollar, one of the released Mexicans, says the agents have been questioning him about all aspects of their experience at Yamato.
"They asked us if there was racism," he says, "or if they paid some people more than others." Questions like that suggest the government might go beyond immigration violations and try to prosecute Yamato under labor laws.
Rebollar says he thinks Yamato treated him well, but he and his colleagues say they'll provide the government with evidence, if necessary. They have good reason to cooperate. Their work permits are valid only as long as there's a case against Yamato. Once they're no longer useful to investigators, they again face deportation.