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Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman January 6, 2016

Obama has mixed record on immigration worksite enforcement

Years before efforts to overhaul immigration laws stalled in Congress, President Barack Obama made promises of his own to address illegal immigration.

During his 2008 campaign, Obama promised to "remove incentives to enter the country illegally by cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.

We rated Obama's promise a Compromise in July 2009 after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said companies seeking government contracts would have to use a government database called E-Verify to ensure that their employees are legal. At the same time, she announced that the administration was getting rid of a Bush administration effort to force all types of companies to fire undocumented workers.

Now that Obama is nearing the end of his term, we're taking another look at the progress of Obama's promise. We found that Obama's progress on this promise has been mixed at best.

Presidents and punishments

Presidents of both parties have put pressure on employers to stop hiring illegal immigrants. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act signed by President Ronald Reagan stated that employers couldn't knowingly hire unauthorized workers. Employers had to attest they made a good faith effort to verify eligibility by completing an I-9 form.

In the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, the federal government developed an online employer verification system now known as E-Verify. In the 2000s, President George W. Bush focused on workplace raids on factories and meatpacking plants. More recently, the Obama administration turned the focus on "paper raids," which refer to I-9 paperwork audits of employers, to determine if they complied with verification laws.

During Obama's first year in office, Immigration and Customs Enforcement started a new focus on civil fines. While the amount of such fines imposed totaled about $675,000 in 2008, the year before Obama took office, the amount has increased every year after, reaching about $16.3 million in 2014.

Despite the increase in dollars, the number of employers who paid such penalties is very low compared with the overall number of employers. Employers receiving final orders represented less than .02 percent of U.S. employers in 2014.

And the number of those convicted of criminal charges were about three times higher in Bush's last year of office than during Obama's tenure. Convictions hit 908 under Bush in 2008 but have ranged between 287 and 364 between 2009-14 under Obama. In 2015, convictions dropped to 167, according to an ICE spokeswoman.

Those numbers mean it's a mixed picture for Obama, said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration expert at the libertarian Cato Institute.

"Some portions of immigration enforcement in the workplace have been ramped up during the Obama administration, while others have diminished," Nowrasteh told PolitiFact. "Twelve times as many administrative fines were issued in 2014 as in 2009, while the dollar value of all of those fines was 16 times as great. However, the number of those arrested on administrative charges has fallen by about two-thirds."

One other piece of data that we obtained from ICE is the number of Form I-9 inspections. Those started at 1,444 in Obama's first year and then peaked at 3,127 in fiscal year 2013 and then dropped to 1,242 in 2015.

Opponents of illegal immigration say those numbers show the Obama administration has lost interest in workplace action.

"The decline in emphasis on worksite enforcement is consistent with overall Obama administration efforts to dismantle immigration enforcement against all but the most egregious convicted criminals," said Jessica Vaughan, an expert at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for low levels of immigration.

Members of the National Federation in Independent Businesses have supported a federal mandatory E-Verify system to ensure an even playing field among employers.

"What we worry about is being held responsible for the federal government's own failures to enforce the border and deport, said "Jack Mozloom, a spokesman for the federation that represents landscapers, contractors, restaurants and other small businesses. "By the time an illegal worker shows up at your door looking for a job, the federal government has already failed multiple times."  

Unauthorized labor force reduced?

One more way to examine the effectiveness of worksite enforcement is whether it helps reduce the size of the unauthorized labor force.

By that measure, Obama hasn't achieved his goal. Pew Research Center found that the number of unauthorized immigrants in the labor force remained fairly steady, around eight million, during Obama's first term.  

Employers' use of E-Verify has grown considerably under Obama's administration, but some of the credit for that goes to the states for their policies requiring E-Verify, said Wendy Feliz, spokeswoman for the American Immigration Council, an organization that is pro-immigration.

In November 2014, Obama announced a series of changes to immigration policies, including a new mandatory program to require employers to use electronic verification phased in over five years.

That would require legislation, which never happened, Vaughan said. In 2013, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Legal Workforce Act to phase in mandatory E-Verify but it never became law.

To address the issue of employers hiring illegal workers, the nation needs to more broadly address illegal immigration, some experts say.

"Whether that's somehow regularizing the presence of the one million or so ,or dealing with labor needs and movement of labor across the border, there is still a long way to go," said Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Obama has had a mixed record in achieving his promise to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants. While the imposition of fines has increased, arrests have dramatically dropped. There is no mandatory E-Verify system, because Congress hasn't acted.

We rate this promise Compromise.

Our Sources

White House, "Strengthen enforcement," Nov. 20, 2014

Center for Immigration Studies, "ICE Records Reveal Steep Drop in Worksite Enforcement Since 2013," June 2015

Congressional Research Service, "Immigration-related worksite enforcement: performance measures," June 23, 2015

Congress.Gov, Legal Workforce Act, Introduced April 26, 2013

Interview, Alex Nowrasteh, CATO Institute immigration policy analyst, Nov. 30, 2015

Interview, Wendy Feliz, American Immigration Council spokeswoman, Nov. 30, 2015

Interview, Jeffrey Passel, Pew Research Center senior demographer, Dec. 1, 2015

Interview, Dani Bennett, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement spokeswoman, Dec. 1, 2015

Interview, Jessica Vaughan, Center for Immigration Studies Director of Policy Studies, Dec. 2, 2015

Interview, Jack Mozloom, National Federation of Independent Businesses spokesman, Dec. 29, 2015

Interview, Garrick Taylor, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry spokesman, Dec. 29, 2015

PolitiFact, "Obama holds record for cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, says Wasserman Schultz," July 3, 2013

By Catharine Richert July 13, 2009

Obama's immigration plan has something for everyone

Over the last few months, President Barack Obama has made some announcements regarding his plan to go after companies that hire undocumented immigrants.
Most recently, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that companies seeking government contracts will have to use a government database called E-Verify to ensure that their employees are here legally.
"Requiring those who seek federal contracts to use this system will create a more reliable and legal workforce," she said on July 8, 2009. "The rule complements our department"s continued efforts to strengthen immigration law enforcement and protect critical employment opportunities.”

But she said the Obama administration will be scrapping a broader Bush administration effort to force all types of companies — not just those receiving federal contracts — to fire undocumented workers.

In Blueprint for Change , the campaign's agenda and collected promises, Obama was vague on his immigration plans. He said he wanted to "remove incentives to enter the country illegally by cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants," but little else. We found more details in his Dec. 1, 2007, interview with the Des Moines Register:
"We need a serious employer verification system, where employers when they hire somebody, find out what their work status is, if they are able to work legally ... and then hold employers accountable," he said. "I'm not particularly impressed with raids on plants that grab a handful of undocumented workers and send them home, leaving the company in a situation where they can just hire the next batch. ... I don't think we've been serious about employer sanctions."
Some background:

Back in 2007, the Bush administration announced the Social Security No-Match rule, which would have required companies to fire employees with suspect Social Security numbers. Companies were sent a letter and given 90 days to comply. If they failed to meet that deadline, they would face thousands in fines.

Businesses fought the rule vehemently because of concerns about paperwork and fines. It was never implemented because it was blocked by a court order.

Meanwhile, Bush targeted one group of employers he could influence: companies that do contract work for the federal government. On June 6, 2008, Bush signed an executive order making it mandatory for government contractors to use E-Verify, a database operated by the Department of Homeland Security, to ensure their new hires were legal.

On July 2, 2009, the Obama administration showed it was willing to put some muscle into immigration enforcement for all types of companies, not just contractors, when it announced it was auditing 625 businesses to verify whether their workers were legal. Violations could result in fines or charges for the companies.

Six days later, Napolitano announced the administration would abandon the No-Match rule but still require government contractors to check employees through E-Verify.
The news has received mixed reviews. On one hand, it satisfies immigrant advocates and business leaders who have opposed the No-Match rule, but it still puts some requirements on some businesses. And while conservatives are happy to see the administration endorse E-Verify, they think killing No-Match will result in less enforcement.

As James Carafano, a homeland security expert, wrote on the conservative Heritage Foundation Web site, "E-Verify is an excellent program. It is, however, not mandatory for all employers. Thus, the first consequence of not issuing no-match letters … is that DHS will be doing less workplace enforcement, not more."

Senate Republicans are conflicted as well. During debate over a bill to fund the Homeland Security Department, the chamber adopted an amendment by Republican Jeff Sessions from Alabama that would make E-Verify mandatory for government contractors, as well as an amendment by Republican David Vitter of Louisiana that would prevent the department from using any money in the bill to shut down the No-Match program. While Sessions' amendment doesn't have an impact on Obama's plans one way or another — the Bush administration already made E-Verify mandatory — the Vitter amendment could stall Obama's plans to end the No-Match rule.
Dan Griswald, director of the free-market Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies, said the recent announcements are a "classic compromise" on Obama's part because, though he's gotten tougher on employers in one sense, he's also backed off an even tougher Bush administration policy.
"He's done this in such a way that supporters and critics are not really satisfied one way or another," he said.
Griswald couldn't have said it better. Obama's supporters say it's not a perfect plan, but that he's certainly following through on his original campaign pledge. His opponents are happy he's keeping Bush's policy for E-Verify, but say scrapping the No-Match plan could result in fewer checks. There could be further action on this one in the future, but for now, we rate it a Compromise.

Our Sources

Department of Homeland Security, press release on E-Verify announcement , accessed July 10, 2009

Security Debrief, DHS Kills Social Security No Match Rule, Moves Forward With E-Verify , by Dawn Lurie, July 9, 2009

Washington Post, Obama Revives Bush Idea to Catch Illegal Workers , by By Spencer S. Hsu, July 9, 2009

Law Offices of Siskind Susser, ABCs of Immigration: Social Security "No Match" Rule , accessed July 9, 2009
Wall Street Journal, Immigration Crackdown Shifts Focus to Employers , by Miriam Jordan and Sabrina Shankman, July 2, 2009

Florida Sun Sentinal, Bush Begins E-Verify Immigration Crackdown , by William Gibson, June 9, 2008

Heritage Foundation, Homeland Security Department Guts Workplace Enforcement ,  by James Carafano, July 10, 2009

Interview with Tamar Jacoby, ImmigrationWorks USA, July 9, 2009

Interview with Dan Griswald, The Cato Foundation, July 13, 2009

Interview with Mary Giovagnoli, the Immigration Policy Center, July 9, 2009

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