Obama immigration audits roundly criticized as ineffective

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 17 2011 12:03 p.m. MDT

Two years after Immigration and Customs Enforcement traded deportation raids for audits that punish the U.S. businesses that hire undocumented immigrants, experts are decrying the practice for driving illegal workers underground and encouraging unscrupulous employers.

Immigrant advocates initially hailed the audits, started by the Obama administration in 2009, as a more humane way to discourage illegal immigration, according to an article published Monday in The Wall Street Journal. As a result of the policy, though, undocumented immigrants are being pushed into the hands of unscrupulous employers, which depresses wages and deprives tax coffers of money.

Even among those who oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants, the audits aren't popular. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a leading voice among amnesty foes, said he believes the audits are ineffectual because immigrants aren't leaving the country. Instead of rounding up immigrants for deportation, the federal government requires businesses, fined for each undocumented immigrant in their employ, to fire illegal workers.

"This means the illegal immigrant can walk down the street to the next employer and take a job that could go to an unemployed, legal worker," he said.

The Wall Street Journal chronicles the story of an immigrant couple who lost their jobs as janitors with ABM, a publicly traded building-services contractor. At ABM, the couple had benefits, made $12 and $14 an hour and paid taxes. After the audit, the only jobs the couple could find paid less than minimum wage. When that company was audited, the two were fired, then brought back a few months later under a subcontractor. By using a subcontractor, companies can use workers who don't appear on the payroll.

The audits were designed to pacify members of Congress who believe the country should enforce current immigration laws before considering overhauling the immigration system, ICE chief John Morton said. They target employers because they act as a "magnet" for illegal immigration, luring undocumented immigrants into the country with the promise of work.

"The master narrative of immigration reform is being crafted around the notion of unscrupulous employers seeking cheap labor," Craig Regelbrugge, a lawyer and lobbyist with the American Nursery and Landscape Association, told The New York Times.

While unscrupulous employers exist, many of the businesses being targeted by audits are trying to follow the law, according to the New York Times. If employers refused to accept seemingly legitimate forms of identification, they would open themselves up to discrimination charges.

After losing 26 of his 99 employees to an audit, David Cox, chief executive of L.E. Cooke Company, a family-owned nursery in Visalia, Calif., said most of his former workers found jobs with his competitors. In the meantime, his operating costs jumped 10 percent.

The number of audits is increasing. Nearly 2,400 companies have been audited this year, more than a 50 percent increase from 2009, Minnesota's Star Tribune reported. Business owners are frustrated.

"(Auditing) creates heartache for the employees, heartache for the employer, and it doesn't do communities or the economies any good either," said Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com, TWITTER: elizMstuart

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