National Data | Quietly, Employer Sanctions Have Been Abandoned
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Obviously the U.S-Mexico border should be sealed. But forty percent of aliens here illegally entered the country legally.

Gaining control of our borders also means making it impossible for illegals to find work in the U.S. This was the motivation for the employer sanctions incorporated in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

But the effort to penalize companies for hiring illegals has been quietly abandoned. Counterfeit IDs plus the INS's unwillingness to hold employers accountable for hiring workers with these bogus documents led to a resurgence of illegal immigrants in the workforce after 1986. [FAIR, Employer Sanctions, January 2004.] More recently, when the INS subpoenaed employment records of large employers suspected of employing illegals, a huge outcry from the usual suspects—industry associations, Hispanic groups, and tame politicians—forced the INS to back off. [Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, "Who Left the Door Open?," Time, September 13, 2004.]

The INS/Homeland Security's employer-sanctions program has all but disappeared: [Table 1.]

  • Investigations targeting employers of illegal immigrants fell more than 70 percent, from 7,637 in 1997 to 2,194 in 2003


  • Arrests on job sites fell—precipitously, from 17,554 in 1997 to 445 in 2003


  • Fines levied for immigration-law violations fell from 778 in 1997 to 124 in 2003

Even in cases where the DHS has evidence that employers are violating the law, the agency tends to back off if the employer pleads ignorance or fights the fine. That's why of the 2,194 investigations completed last year, fines were imposed in only 124 of them—about one out of twenty. 

Remember, there are at least 8,700,000 illegal aliens in the U.S., according to a recent Census Bureau estimate [Matt Hayes, "INS Fails to Enforce Employer Sanctions, Fox News, January 9, 2003] — perhaps many more. They can't all be working for the 124 entities fined by the Department of Homeland Security last year.  

Moreover, DHS collected only $2.6 million of $5.3 million in fines it levied on employers of illegal aliens in 2002. The agency was unable to collect a dime from nearly a quarter of those employers. It agreed to drastically reduced settlements with many others.

Apologists might argue that, in the post 9/11 world, policing the border is more important than enforcing employer sanctions. Homeland Security spending reflects this view: funds devoted to interior enforcement are less than 3 percent of the amount spent on border control.

Moreover, most individuals apprehended by Homeland Security solely for being here illegally are simply sent back to their home country at U.S. expense.

Heightened border controls alone may actually be making the illegal alien problem worse before it gets better. Research suggests, for example, that it is increasing the time spent in the U.S. by undocumented aliens.  Seasonal migrants who previously would leave the U.S. at the end of the agricultural season and return later are now, in effect, trapped by the increased border surveillance.

The illegal alien problem requires a comprehensive answer. Employer sanctions are part of it—if, that is, they are enforced.

[Number fans click here for tables.]

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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