On Tuesday, Tom Homan, the Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), announced a crackdown on worksite enforcement, meaning that the agency will increasingly be prosecuting employers who hire undocumented immigrants as well as arresting any undocumented immigrants who are encountered during these workplace crack downs. "Not only are we going to prosecute the employers that hire illegal workers, we're going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers," Homan said.
This announcement marks a deviation from ICE's worksite enforcement strategy under the Obama administration, which primarily focused on employers, not undocumented employees, as Homan indicated. "When we find you at a work site, we're no longer going to turn our heads," he said. "We'll go after the employer who knowingly hires an illegal alien ... but we're always going to arrest a person who is here illegally. That is our job."
Tom Jawetz from the Center for American Progress tells Bustle that it "brings us back" to the large-scale workplace raids that took place under President George W. Bush. "Today's announcement — along with plans to ramp up detention capacity in private prisons around the country — is just further proof that this administration's driving focus in mass deportation," he says.
In his Tuesday speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Homan expressed that the impetus behind this increase in workplace inspections stems from the agency trying to eliminate the "magnet" (work) that it believes draws people to the United States as undocumented immigrants. In terms of specific strategy, Homan noted that he has directed ICE increase worksite enforcement by "by four to five times" its current levels, adding: "We've already increased the number of inspections in work site operations, you will see that significantly increase this next fiscal year."
In the first year of Obama administration, ICE implemented a revised worksite enforcement strategy, which is still listed on the agency's website, with a revised date of April 1, 2013. The strategy notes that it "prioritizes the use of criminal prosecutions against employers," especially those that mistreat their workers, engage in human trafficking, launder money, perpetuate identity theft, promote use of unauthorized workers as a business model, or engage in other criminal conduct.
According to CNN, ICE spokesperson Liz Johnson said that its current strategy "continues to address both" employers and employees, though emphasized that Trump's administration is seemingly taking employees into account more so than did the Obama administration. Johnson added:
While we focus on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers, under the current administration's enforcement priorities, workers encountered during these investigations who are unauthorized to remain in the United States are also subject to administrative arrest and removal from the country.
Jawetz says that under Bush, "hundreds of federal officers swarmed workplaces and arrested hundreds of workers at a time." He adds, "Nursing mothers were separated from their children and judges shuttled immigrants through rapid-fire proceedings without due process, but these resource-intensive raids did nothing to increase public safety."
Back in February, the San Diego Union Tribune did a report on the possibility for increased workplace enforcement under Trump. An immigration attorney interviewed for the piece, Eugene Iredale, predicted that the Trump administration would primarily go after undocumented employees rather than employers during worksite enforcement raids, seemingly in contrast to the Obama administration. Iredale expounded on his predictions at the time, saying,
Trump is essentially on the side of the employers. ... I doubt very much whether there is any desire to have evenhanded enforcement of the law. I would be willing to bet money that the focus of Trump’s enforcement policy is to go after undocumented immigrants and undocumented immigrants alone.
This is not to say that the Obama administration did not pursue worksite enforcement. Indeed, the administration conducted 3,127 employer audits in 2013 (the most prolific year for audits during his administration) and made 713 criminal arrests associated with worksite enforcement in 2011 (again, this figure represents the peak number of arrests).
However, it certainly seems possible, based on ICE's own recently-announced new approach as well as on the opinions of experts, that the Trump administration will increasingly conduct worksite audits with a focus that is less centered on criminal activities of an employer — and more focused on the legal status of individual employees.