DHS Signals Policy Changes Ahead for Immigration Raids

Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post, March 29, 2009

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has delayed a series of proposed immigration raids and other enforcement actions at U.S. workplaces in recent weeks, asking agents in her department to apply more scrutiny to the selection and investigation of targets as well as the timing of raids, federal officials said.

A senior department official said the delays signal a pending change in whom agents at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement choose to prosecute–increasing the focus on businesses and executives instead of ordinary workers.

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“There will be a change in policy, but in the interim, you’ve got to scrutinize the cases coming up,” the senior DHS official said, noting Napolitano’s expectations as a former federal prosecutor and state attorney general.

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Napolitano’s moves have led some to question President Obama’s commitment to work-site raids, which were a signature of Bush administration efforts to combat illegal immigration. Napolitano has highlighted other priorities, such as combating Mexican drug cartels and catching dangerous criminals who are illegal immigrants.

Napolitano’s moves foreshadow the difficult political decisions the Obama administration faces as it decides whether to continue mass arrests of illegal immigrant workers in sweeps of meatpackers, construction firms, defense contractors and other employers.

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The raids have enraged Latino community and religious leaders, immigrant advocates and civil liberties groups important to the Democratic base, who have stepped up pressure on Obama to stop them.

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But Obama also faces pressure from conservative lawmakers and many centrist Democrats, who say that workplace enforcement is needed to reduce the supply of jobs that attract illegal immigrants, and that any retreat in defending American jobs in a recession could ignite a populist backlash.

When the White House announced plans last week to move more than 450 federal agents and equipment to the border to counter Mexico’s drug cartels, lawmakers warned Napolitano against diverting money from workplace operations.

Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said the administration “appears to be using border violence as an excuse” to undercut immigration enforcement in the nation’s interior.

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Led by Byrd [Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.),], Congress this year ordered ICE to spend $127 million on workplace operations, $34 million more than President George W. Bush had requested. Reducing those amounts, even in ICE’s overall $5 billion budget, would provoke a fight, senior aides in both parties said.

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