Obama Plan to Audit Employers Is "Soft" Immigration Enforcement Says Lamar Smith

Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says the Obama Administration’s plans to create an office to sniff out employers who hire illegal immigrants is deficient and will not discourage the hiring of unauthorized workers.

In a statement sent to Fox News Latino, Smith said the new auditing efforts, announced Thursday by immigration officials, “are soft enforcement at best.”

“These audits are of little use, with many employers considering minor fines just the cost of doing business,” said Smith, who has vowed to push for tougher enforcement now that Republicans control the House of Representatives. “In fact, sometimes these fines are less than a New York City parking ticket.”

"Americans don’t want another taxpayer funded government office,” he said. “Instead, the Administration should increase real worksite enforcement efforts, which includes administrative and criminal arrests."

Smith plans to hold hearings next week on worksite enforcement.

Smith, long a hawk on immigration enforcement, has vowed to focus on cracking down on illegal immigration. He and other GOP leaders have rejected calls by Democrats and immigration advocacy groups for comprehensive immigration reform – which would include both enforcement and offering a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants – and have said that securing the borders must be the priority in immigration policy.

People who support allowing illegal immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria to legalize their status say the United States needs immigrants to do work that U.S. citizens will not do.

“Although it might seem that deporting all unauthorized immigrant workers from the labor force would automatically improve job prospects for unemployed Americans, the fact is that employment is not a 'zero sum” game,'" said Michele Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Center, in a blog.

"Mass deportation would actually reduce U.S. GDP by 1.46 percent annually, amounting to a $2.6 trillion cumulative loss in GDP over 10 years, and cost an estimated $206 billion to $230 billion over five years," Waslin said. "The notion that unemployed natives could simply be 'swapped' for employed unauthorized immigrants is not valid economically.”

Citing a study by The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northwestern University, Smith refuted the argument that cracking down on illegal immigrants would not translate into jobs for U.S. citizens and legal immigrants.

“Over the past two years, eight million Americans have lost their jobs," Smith said. "At the same time, nearly 350,000 illegal immigrants found work in the United States. This means illegal immigrants got jobs instead of citizens and legal workers."

“Studies like this prove that our first priority must be to help generate jobs for American workers. We could open up jobs for millions of Americans if we simply enforced immigration laws."

Under the Bush Administration, immigration officials conducted several worksite sweeps, including one in Postville, Iowa, at a kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in which nearly 400 workers were arrested and charged with such things as identity theft and document fraud. Most were deported in what, until then, had been the largest raid of a workplace in the nation’s history.

Though some managers at the plant faced criminal charges, and the plant’s owner was convicted on charges of financial improprieties, the norm in such raids was that workers were arrested and deported, while little ever happened to employers – something that drew protests from immigration advocates.

"The raid on Postville was primarily a raid on the poor, who couldn't help themselves," said Father Paul Ouderkirk, a former pastor of Postville's St. Bridget Parish, the Catholic church that became a shelter of sorts for immigrants and others affected by the raid. "Many of these immigrants had submitted, before the raid,  their paperwork to immigration -- I had helped many of them do this -- they had taken the steps to do what was right. This raid was also really a raid on the town, it lost many businesses, it lost a core of the community that was providing taxes."

"It left behind hundreds of families who were dependent on the workers, and we have had to take care of them, and we're running out money," said Ouderkirk, who had retired as pastor four years before the raid, and returned to help the immigrant families affected. "Only incidentally was it a raid on the plant."

After the series of controversial raids, immigration officials announced a new enforcement strategy that would shift from punishing workers to penalizing employers.

In fiscal year 2010, which ran from October 2009 to September of last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials conducted audits of more than 2,740 companies, nearly twice as many as the previous year, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. The agency levied a record $7 million in civil fines on businesses that employed illegal workers, the Journal reported.

“Unfortunately, the Administration has all but abandoned worksite enforcement during the last two years,” Smith said in another statement. “The Administration’s lack of enforcement is basically a worksite endorsement for illegal immigrants taking our jobs.”

“It is time this Administration acted in the best interest of all Americans, especially the unemployed.”

ICE Director John Morton said he wanted more businesses to cross-check the documents that people show as proof of their eligibility to work in the United States with federal government agencies.

One program is E-Verify, through which employers can check government databases, and another is IMAGE, or ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers, also a voluntary program that includes training and assessments to help a company guard against hiring illegal employees.

But many proponents of tougher immigration enforcement say that such programs should be expanded, and made mandatory.

"The Administration should also encourage and expand the use of E-Verify,” Smith said. “This effective tool – which confirms 99.5 percent of work-eligible employees – preserves jobs for U.S. citizens and legal immigrants by helping employers make sure that they are hiring legal workers.”

“E-Verify is already used by more than 225,000 employers and another 1,300 businesses sign up each week to use this reliable program," Smith added. "We don’t need another useless bureaucracy when we already have effective tools at hand."

You can reach Elizabeth Llorente at Elizabeth.Llorente@FoxNewsLatino.com

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