The Trump administration ramped up arrests at businesses suspected of employing undocumented immigrants in 2018, but data obtained by USA TODAY show that federal agents did so by mostly targeting those working illegally and not their employers.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was ordered to quadruple worksite enforcement this year, and it did just that. In fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30, ICE set 10-year highs for the number of worksite audits conducted (5,981) and criminal charges filed (779).
ICE leadership claimed its crackdown is focused on employers and employees equally as part of a balanced approach to worksite enforcement, but the data show that the majority of arrests in 2018 were of workers.
The 113 members of management charged with criminal violations in 2018 increased 82 percent from the previous year, but the 666 workers charged with criminal violations increased by 812 percent. The number of "administrative arrests" – those for basic immigration violations that are predominantly used against workers – spiked from 172 in 2017 to 1,525 in 2018. The 121 federal indictments and convictions of managers in 2018 represented a 10-year low for the agency.
Greg Nevano, who oversees worksite enforcement for ICE's Homeland Security Investigations office, said those numbers do not mean employers get a pass. He said it simply takes more time for federal charges to be finalized against employers because their cases are more complex and those numbers will start increasing in 2019 as more indictments are filed.
"We need more time to develop these investigations," Nevano said.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that advocates on behalf of immigrants, said he's not willing to give the Trump administration the benefit of the doubt, given its track record targeting all kinds of immigrants for deportation and the sheer volume of worksite arrests targeting employees over employers.
"When you look at the deployment of prosecutorial resources by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, it's clear they are more worried about the undocumented housekeeper than they are about the unscrupulous employer," Noorani said.
The way ICE approaches worksite enforcement has changed greatly depending on the administration in power.
Under President George W. Bush, ICE agents focused on large-scale raids that rounded up massive numbers of workers. During his second term, ICE arrested an average of 3,511 workers on administrative charges each year, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Under President Barack Obama, the focus shifted to auditing employers. During Bush’s final year, ICE initiated 503 audits of companies to examine the paperwork employees must sign verifying their identity and immigration status. During Obama’s first four years, that shot up to more than 2,000 audits a year, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Under Trump, ICE said it would tackle all of the above. During a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation last year, Thomas Homan, who was ICE director at the time, vowed to increase worksite enforcement by "four or five times" by going after both sides of the employment equation.
"We're going to do it a little different," Homan said. "We're going to prosecute employers that knowingly hire illegal aliens, (and) we're going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers."
That strategy played out during a raid of a meatpacking plant in Bean Station, Tennessee, in April. In that case, 97 workers and the owner of the plant, James Brantley, were arrested.