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US cut back on illegal-worker penalties

Data indicate lax enforcement against employers

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, which is vowing to crack down on US companies that hire illegal immigrants, virtually abandoned such employer sanctions before it began pushing to overhaul US immigration laws last year, government figures show.

In light of the government's record, analysts on all sides of the debate are expressing doubt the administration will be able to remove the American job magnet that attracts illegal immigrants.

Between 1999 and 2003, worksite enforcement operations were scaled back 95 percent by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which subsequently was merged into the Homeland Security Department. The number of employers prosecuted for unlawfully employing immigrants dropped from 182 to four, and fines collected declined from $3.6 million to $212,000, according to federal data. In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies. In 2004, it issued fine notices to three.

The government's steady retreat from workplace enforcement in the 20 years since it became illegal to hire undocumented workers is the result of fierce political pressure from business lobbies, immigrant rights groups, and members of Congress, according to law enforcement veterans.

Punishing employers also was deemphasized as the government recognized it lacks the tools to do the job well, and as the Department of Homeland Security shifted resources to combat terrorism.

The administration says it is learning from past failures, switching to a strategy of building more criminal cases, instead of relying on ineffective administrative fines or pinprick raids against individual businesses with outnumbered agents. In its current drive, it is seeking more resources to sanction employers, toughen penalties, and finally set up a reliable system to verify the eligibility of workers. That would allow the government to hold employers accountable for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

The Homeland Security Department also is seeking access to Social Security Administration records of workers whose numbers and names don't match.

But the new efforts are being met with skepticism. ``The claims of this administration and its commitment to interior enforcement of immigration laws are laughable," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an advocacy group that favors tougher workplace enforcement.

``The administration only discovered immigration enforcement over the past few months, five years into its existence, and only then because they realized that a pro-enforcement pose was necessary to get their amnesty plan approved," he said.

The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which succeeded the INS, has dramatically stepped up enforcement efforts. It won 127 criminal convictions last year, up from 46 in 2004, and obtained $15 million in settlements from an investigation of Wal-Mart and 12 subcontractors last fall, a spokesman said.

In the past few months, ICE has led several high-profile actions against a Houston-based pallet-services company, Maryland restaurateurs, and Kentucky homebuilders, among others.

In an interview, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said a combination of carrots and sticks for business can work.

``It would be hard to sustain political support for vigorous worksite enforcement if you don't give employers an avenue to hire their workers in a way that is legal, because you're basically saying, `You've got to go out of business,' " he said. On the other hand, ``businesses need to understand if you don't . . . play by the rules, we're really going to come down on you."

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