SEATTLE – The Department of Homeland Security freed 27 illegal immigrants arrested during a workplace raid in February and offered them legal work permits, signaling a major departure from the immigration enforcement policy of the Bush administration.
The Feb. 24 raid of an auto parts plant in Bellingham, Wash., netted 28 illegal immigrants. While one was deported, the remaining workers were released from custody and given employment authorization documents, or EADs, in exchange for cooperating with an ongoing investigation of their employer, Yamato Engine Specialists.
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The EAD is a temporary work permit most commonly given to people applying for green cards or citizenship. It usually lasts for one year, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) sources tell FOX News that these work permits will expire when the case against Yamato is closed.
Immigrant rights activists support the move and the new direction Secretary Janet Napolitano is taking the Homeland Security Department with her focus on penalizing employers rather than the immigrants themselves.
"She is crafting and the people in her department are crafting a strategy that could target some people who are abusive and manipulative as employers," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the Seattle-based immigrant aid group OneAmerica.
But critics say the softened policy will increase the number of illegal immigrants entering the country.
"The signal that it sends to illegal immigrants is that if you can get here, you're pretty much home free," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
The Bellingham raid was the first and only mass arrest of immigrants since President Obama took office and came as a shock to Napolitano, who ordered a review of the incident the day after.
"I didn't know about it beforehand," she told the House Homeland Security Committee the morning following the raid. "I want to get to the bottom of this as well."
The response from the Department of Homeland Security marks a major shift from the last years of the Bush administration, when workplace arrests of illegals were commonplace.
Criminal arrests of employers who hired illegal immigrants skyrocketed from 25 in 2002 to 1,103 in 2008. The number of deportations jumped from 485 to 5,184 over that same time period. The Obama administration has sought a freeze on immigrant arrests.
Enforcement advocates say Americans should be outraged by the government giving illegal immigrants a right to work when unemployment is so high for documented workers.
Unemployment in Whatcom County, home to the Yamato plant, has risen to 8.1 percent, and in the days after the Yamato raid, more than 150 people applied for the jobs made open by the arrests.
Immigrant groups say the release was a humane act that is keeping families together and allowing them to earn a decent living.
Secretary Napolitano is expected to soon formally announce new guidelines for workplace immigration enforcement.
An I.C.E source in Washington D.C. disputes the claim that this marks a new policy telling FOX News the work permits are issued as an investigative tool to get cooperation from the illegal immigrants.