Enforcement of workplace immigration law, a central principle of immigration reform legislation under debate in Congress, has significantly declined since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, according to testimony at a Senate hearing Monday.
The number of unauthorized workers arrested fell from 2,849 in fiscal year 1999 to 445 in 2003, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
The report also found the number of intent-to-fine notices issued to employers for improperly filling out forms related to foreign workers or knowingly hiring unauthorized workers dropped from 417 to three in the same four-year period.
The GAO noted the number of full-time immigration officials devoted to worksite enforcement fell from 240 in 1999 to 90 in 2003.
"It is no wonder that many employers view enforcement as a remote possibility, and any civil penalties as a cost of doing business," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the immigration, border security and citizenship subcommittee.
Julie Myers, the Department of Homeland Security's assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), acknowledged at the hearing that the current system "of issuing monetary fines that were routinely mitigated or ignored had little or no deterrent effect."
Fines for failing to check an employee's documents can be as low as $110, less than a New York City parking ticket, said Stewart Baker, the department's assistant secretary for policy development.
Baker said other components of "a failed employment verification and enforcement system" include the proliferation of false documents, the high hurdles to prove malfeasance and the lack of information sharing, specifically between the Social Security Administration and the ICE.
The House and the Senate have both passed border security and immigration overhaul bills that would require all 7 million U.S. employers to check the legal status of workers through an electronic employment eligibility verification program. The two chambers have yet to negotiate differences in the two bills, which include Senate provisions to open paths for illegal immigrants to become citizens.
Baker said the administration supports the concept of an electronic verification system, but the GAO report noted that a voluntary pilot program set up in 1996 has had problems with failures to detect fraud and DHS delays in entering information into its database.
Immigration officials told the GAO that the pilot program, involving some 8,600 employers, may not be able to verify worker status in a timely fashion if the program is significantly increased in size.
Baker said the department was confident it could get a phased-in verification system off the ground, but added that the system should not be made mandatory until the DHS secretary certifies that it is capable and accurate.
He and Myers also explained that the drop in worksite enforcement is in part a result of the department going after criminals and hardcore violators.
"Since 9/11, ICE has prioritized critical infrastructure," Myers said. As examples, she cited the arrest of 55 illegal aliens working at a Dulles International Airport construction site outside Washington, and crackdowns on people engaged in illegal immigrant smuggling, forced labor and prostitution.