BREWSTER, Wash. - The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies' records for illegal immigrant workers.
While the sweeps of the past commonly led to the deportation of such workers, the "silent raids," as employers call the audits, usually result in the workers being fired, but in many cases they are not deported.
Over the past year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted audits of employee files at more than 2,900 companies. The agency has levied a record $3 million in civil fines so far this year on businesses that hired unauthorized immigrants, according to official figures. Thousands of those workers have been fired, immigrant groups estimate.
Employers say the audits reach more companies than the work-site roundups of the administration of President George W. Bush. The audits force businesses to fire every suspected illegal immigrant on the payroll - not just those who happened to be on duty at the time of a raid - and make it much harder to hire other unauthorized workers as replacements.
"Instead of hundreds of agents going after one company, now one agent can go after hundreds of companies," said Mark Reed, president of Border Management Strategies, a consulting firm in Tucson, Ariz., that advises companies on immigration law. "And there is no drama, no trauma, no families being torn apart, no handcuffs."
President Barack Obama, in a speech last week, explained a two-step immigration policy. He promised tough enforcement against illegal immigration, in workplaces and at the border, saying it would prepare the way for a legislative overhaul to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants already in the country.
In another shift, ICE has moved away from bringing criminal charges against immigrant workers who lack legal status but have otherwise clean records.
Republican lawmakers accuse Obama of lax enforcement.
"Even if discovered, illegal aliens are allowed to walk free and seek employment elsewhere" said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee. "This ... is particularly troubling at a time when so many American citizens are struggling to find jobs."
Employers complain the Obama administration is leaving them short of labor for some low-wage work, conducting silent raids but offering no new legal immigrant laborers in occupations, like farm work, that Americans continue to shun despite the long recession. Federal labor officials estimate that more than 60 percent of farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants.