Michael Turner is special agent in charge of investigations for the Phoenix office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He described the agency’s priorities and policies toward enforcement of immigration laws at worksites during an interview with Republic reporter Daniel Gonzalez. Here are excerpts:
Q. Experts say worksite enforcement is crucial to the success of any guest-worker plan passed by Congress. How often does ICE investigate employers of undocumented workers?
A. ICE investigates employers that are allegedly using undocumented workers all the time. In Phoenix alone we are conducting investigations that deal with businesses of national interest. We are interested in ensuring that unauthorized workers are not gaining access to such facilities as nuclear power plants and international airports. Additionally, we are focusing on employers who are willfully and knowingly criminally violating the employment authorization statutes, harboring illegal aliens, involved in human trafficking, and involved in arranging illegal entry into the United States.
Q. How did the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks affect your priorities?
A. Since Sept. 11, and particularly since the formation of ICE under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, we’ve taken our immigration enforcement authorities related to worksites and focused them as a top priority on businesses of national interest, critical infrastructure, critical industry that could be susceptible to terrorist attacks and using the worksite enforcement program to ensure that unauthorized workers cannot gain access to these facilities.
Q. When was the last time an employer in the Phoenix area was fined for hiring undocumented immigrants?
A. The last significant fine was in the summer of 2001. It involved a company that was in fact knowingly employing unauthorized workers. That fine was ultimately paid in the summer of 2001, about $125,000.
Q. Have any employers of undocumented immigrants been fined since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?
A. Not in Phoenix, and one of the chief reasons for that is because we’ve shifted our focus to deal with businesses of national interests, such as the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant and Sky Harbor Airport. In our most recent case, we arrested nine undocumented workers at one of Boeing’s defense locations in Phoenix, and we are conducting other similar investigations. . . We haven’t found that any of them have been involved in knowing or willful violations.
Q. Why doesn’t ICE conduct sweeps at restaurants, day labor centers, hotels and construction sites?
A. For a couple of different reasons. First, our priorities are to look for terrorists, criminal organizations and violent criminals that are involved in immigration and customs violations. Sweeps are not a terribly effective way to be able to target those individuals and it’s really a matter of priorities. Given the resources that ICE has to apply to these issues, we want to go after the people in organizations that pose the greatest threat to national security and public safety and that we have the best likelihood to make a real impact on violent crime and terrorist activity by focusing on specific individuals.
Q. What would it take to conduct large-scale investigations of employers of undocumented immigrants?
A. Again, it’s a matter of resources and priorities. Nationally, we have about 5,700 special agents in our offices here and in foreign locations, and on any given day we can focus those resources on the greatest problems that exist. And I’d point out that in addition to the resources that we have today, there are some fairly significant resource enhancements in the fiscal 2005 budget that is still pending in front of Congress. That budget as it stands today would pretty much double the resources that ICE is committing nationwide to worksite enforcement.
Q. How does ICE respond to complaints about undocumented immigrants from the public?
A. Public complaints related to worksite enforcement and to immigration and customs violations in general are a very valuable source of investigative leads for us. . . Sometimes I think there is a perception . . . if there is not immediate action, there is a perception that we are not acting, and that’s really not accurate at all. Some of these investigations can take a significant amount of time and a significant amount of effort to bring them to the point that we can bring effective enforcement action, not only to apprehend undocumented immigrants, but far more importantly, to take appropriate action criminally and administratively against willful and egregious violators.