WASHINGTON -- Farmers’ congressional allies are pressuring the Obama administration to ease up on some immigration work-site enforcement, underscoring a conflict at the heart of a broad-based immigration bill.
This week, spurred by complaints from farmers in California’s Central Valley, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein publicly urged the Department of Homeland Security to “redirect” immigration enforcement efforts toward “serious violent crimes” instead of “legitimate agricultural employers and their workers.”
“The reality is that the majority of farmworkers in the U.S. are foreign-born and unauthorized, which is well-known,” Feinstein wrote Tuesday, adding that she’s “afraid that this aggressive worksite enforcement strategy will deprive the agricultural sector of most of its workforce.”
Worksite monitoring has definitely heated up.
In 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents audited 503 companies nationwide for employee eligibility. Last year, ICE agents conducted more than 3,000 such audits.
In 2008, federal officials issued only 18 “final orders” fining employers and ordering them to stop breaking the law against hiring workers who are in the U.S. illegally. Officials collected $675,209 in fines that year. Last year, officials issued 495 final orders and collected $12.4 million in fines.
“In agriculture, they’ve been focusing on our processors and our packing facilities, and they are causing a tremendous amount of damage,” Manuel Cunha, the president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif., said in an interview Thursday.
The California farmers pressed the point several weeks ago with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was visiting Bakersfield, Calif., as part of a fundraising swing through the Golden State. Cunha said that the farmers, working with members of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Central Valley, were trying to raise similar concerns directly with Obama administration officials.
“They’re making these employers fire their workers,” Cunha said.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman couldn’t be reached to comment Thursday, but on its website the agency underscored the importance of enforcement.
“Employment is a primary driving force behind illegal immigration,” the agency says. “Responsible employers who conduct their business lawfully are put at an unfair disadvantage when they try to compete with unscrupulous businesses. The unscrupulous businesses may gain a competitive edge by not paying their unauthorized workers prevailing wages and benefits.”
The farmers’ complaints, though, also show how tricky enforcement can become. While border security might sound like a no-brainer, employer-focused enforcement may bite the politically connected. Consequently, lawmakers can end up toggling between tough talk and calls for greater leeway.
“Elected officials from areas with concentrations of particular industries will represent those interests when they can,” former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, who’s now with the Migration Policy Institute research center, said in an interview Thursday, adding that “this probably puts a lot more pressure on the executive branch and can narrow the room in which the executive branch has to move.”