News Room

Obama Hones Immigration Policy
July 21, 2009

The Obama administration is using its executive powers to change U.S. immigration policies and practices on a range of fronts, not waiting for efforts by Congress to tackle a broader overhaul of the system.

Written by Cam Simpson, The Wall Street Journal


Suspected illegal immigrants, among 600 detained at Mississippi plant, leave U.S. court in Hattiesburg last August.

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is using its executive powers to change U.S. immigration policies and practices on a range of fronts, not waiting for efforts by Congress to tackle a broader overhaul of the system.

Administration officials say they want to shift the emphasis in immigration enforcement to what the White House calls the demand-side of illegal immigration by focusing on employers, moving away from high-profile raids that resulted in thousands of worker arrests during the Bush years.

The Obama approach also toughens individual enforcement against illegal immigrants with criminal records, but takes a less stringent line with economic migrants and victims of abuse. In some cases, the Obama administration is pushing ahead with plans set under President George W. Bush -- such as putting into effect a mandate that all federal contractors and subcontractors use a government employment-verification system called E-Verify.

Congressional Democrats want to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation by the end of the summer that would offer a path to legal status for some of the estimated 12 million people now in the U.S. illegally. Many but not all congressional Republicans have opposed proposals to legalize undocumented migrants already in the country. President Barack Obama has signaled that he supports offering some form of legalization, but is also pursuing tougher enforcement that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans on the fence.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is carrying out many of the new policies following reviews she ordered just after taking office in January. One of her most high-profile actions thus far was to end the Bush administration's raids at processing plants, factories and other work sites.

Now, the Obama administration is placing greater emphasis on fines and other civil penalties against employers, sending paperwork and accountants instead of gun-toting agents to conduct raids.

Earlier this month, the government announced notices went to 652 U.S. companies suspected of employing illegal workers. Violations could result in fines, other administrative actions or even criminal charges. The number of cases announced by the Obama administration this month is almost 30% greater than all those launched by the Bush administration throughout the entire last fiscal year, officials said.

"What you are talking about, fundamentally, are employers who are cheating," said a senior administration official involved in the changes. "What we are talking about is taking unfair competition out of the market."

Reviews from business groups are mixed. In the past, "there was this whole idea of demonizing undocumented workers," said Angelo Amador, who heads immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Now there's a shift, which is, 'Let's demonize employers,' and we don't think either is going to be very effective."

Peter Schey, a lawyer for American Apparel Inc., a Los Angeles clothing manufacturer and retailer that admitted it was among the 652 firms targeted, said the new administration's tactics amount to "a far more rational approach to work site enforcement." The White House should go even further, he said, and focus on those who run "sweatshops" and criminally exploit migrant workers. Many employers targeted likely met their legal obligations by checking the paperwork of their workers, Mr. Schey said, but had been presented with false documents from the workers.

The focus of the Obama administration hasn't been solely on employers. Among other moves, the White House temporarily halted deportations of many immigrant widows and widowers. It has also opened a path for abused women to get asylum in the U.S. and vacated a Bush administration order limiting appeals for immigrants who had inept or corrupt attorneys.

"They're not going to run out of things to fix anytime soon," said Doris Meissner, who headed immigration enforcement during the Clinton administration and is now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "This is a very complex system and it needs lots of interventions."

Still pending, according to administration officials, is a major review of the nation's controversial immigration-detention system, which is largely scattered among state and local governments, and private contractors.

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