WASHINGTON -- A day after federal agents arrested 1,187 people on illegal-immigration charges in the nation's largest-ever work site enforcement action, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned yesterday of an intensified campaign to target employers whose businesses rely on large numbers of undocumented workers.
But some immigration lawyers suspect that the crackdown might have been more a Bush administration response to criticism that for years it had done too little work site enforcement. They questioned whether the administration would follow through with its approach.
The arrests in Chicago and other U.S. cities of employees of IFCO Systems, a Netherlands-based company that manufactures wooden pallets, came amid a national debate over illegal immigration. There was evidence that the arrests already were being factored into that debate.
"This complements the temporary worker notion," Chertoff said, referring to the proposal in Congress that a legal path be provided for undocumented immigrants to achieve legal status in the United States.
"We want to create a very clear choice for employers. A legal path that'll be regulated, that'll be totally visible and that will allow the hiring of workers in accordance with the law, on a temporary basis. ... Or a choice not to follow the law, which will be met with a very tough sanction."
Legislation that was part of a Senate compromise, which might be taken up next week when Congress returns, would create a guest-worker program and allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status in the United States, a path that could lead to citizenship.
Congressional and other critics of legalization have pointed to the lack of work site enforcement of immigration laws as a reason to oppose the proposal.
The arrests at the IFCO sites, which included seven current and former company managers charged with felony conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants, came after a year's investigation, Chertoff said. They were triggered when a witness at an IFCO location in New York state saw many workers destroying their W-2 tax forms.
When the witness asked why they were doing that, IFCO managers said the workers "wouldn't need their W-2s because they were illegal aliens, had invalid Social Security numbers and, therefore, weren't going to be filing income tax returns," Chertoff said.
The company did not return a call yesterday seeking comment on the raids, but in a statement Wednesday it pledged to cooperate with the investigation and comply with employment requirements.
But immigration-rights activist Roberto Carlos Lopez of Pueblo Sin Fronteras, or Community Without Borders, called upon the government yesterday to stop such raids and any deportations while Congress debates immigration. Lopez spoke outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Chicago's Loop, where he had gathered with a small group of activists and Mexican immigrants.
The 26 people arrested at a Southwest Side IFCO site were released on their own recognizance yesterday from a federal immigration processing facility in Broadview, ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said.
Lopez said the arrests at IFCO sites were intended to intimidate the immigrant community.
But Chertoff, speaking in Washington, said, "The fact of the matter is there are employers who knowingly or recklessly hire unauthorized workers, and they've actually built their business on being able to do that ... so those are the employers, the bad actors, that we have to target."
Frank James writes for the Chicago Tribune.