AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREBasketball roundup: Sierra Canyon, Birmingham set to face off in tournament quarterfinalsBut critics blasted the agency for backing down from its efforts to discourage and penalize those who help undocumented workers. “To say that their efforts are trivial are to grossly overstate their efforts,” said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a D.C.-based think tank that takes a hard line on illegal immigration. “Gee, maybe we don’t have a problem anymore,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks, long an advocate of advocated increased enforcement of immigration laws. With Congress poised this week to approve a massive immigration overhaul, lawmakers and President George W. Bush have touted their dedication to beefing up security at the border and increasing fines for hiring illegal immigrants. But analysts said the fresh statistics make them skeptical the proposed tougher punishments against employers will even be enforced. WASHINGTON – Despite the national spotlight on immigration reform, the federal government has abandoned financial sanctions as a way to punish employers for hiring illegal immigrants, choosing instead to pursue criminal penalties, according to officials and documents. Dean Boyd, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said fines against employers were ineffective as a deterrent to hiring illegal immigrants, with some companies simply considering the penalties a cost of doing business. So beginning in 2003, he said, the agency dramatically decreased the number of fines imposed, while beefing up its criminal prosecutions. “We have found that to be a far greater wake-up call” to employers, Boyd said. “We’ve really changed the way we’re going about doing our business. We are taking a completely new strategy.” “Until you get a reformed system, it’s going to be impossible to have the robust enforcement we all agree is appropriate,” said Marshall Fitz, director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. But Boyd noted that criminal prosecutions have risen steadily since the agency changed tactics. Arrests rose 10 percent from 2004 to 2005, resulting in 127 criminal convictions last year. This year, the agency has made more than 2,000 arrests in connection with the employment of illegal immigrants. Seizures and forfeitures also have taken the place of fines, Boyd said. Wal-Mart agreed to pay $11 million last year after the government found it hired illegal immigrants for cleaning crews at its stores, and last month the owners of three sushi restaurants in Baltimore agreed to forfeit more than $1.1 million after pleading guilty to hiring illegal immigrants. Boyd noted that the Wal-Mart settlement alone equaled eight years of civil penalties collected by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. But with an estimated 7.2 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. work force, lawmakers and analysts said they think the administration’s enforcement efforts don’t go far enough. Gallegly said that since there are more than 10 million people working with invalid Social Security numbers, the small number of arrests doesn’t seem like a very good record. Carl W. Hampe, a former U.S. Senate counsel who helped draft the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, said Congress purposely created civil and criminal penalties and that both should be enforced. “There seems to be no excuse for not enforcing the law civilly,” he said, calling ICE’s strategy of focusing only on criminal prosecutions “not consistent with the intent of Congress.” Hampe also criticized the number of arrests. “For 8 million employers, that’s like, never. It’s such a small drop in the bucket,” he said. Rep. David Dreier, who has proposed a national Social Security card system that would enable employers to easily verify a worker’s employment status, said the statistics show the need for a better overall system. “As enforcement is stepped up, it’s also important that we improve the employment eligibility verification system, so that employers can feel confident they are making legitimate hiring decisions,” said Dreier, R-Glendora. “It would be far easier to root out the bad apples if we gave honest and hard-working business owners the tools necessary to follow the law.” [email protected] (202) 662-8731 EMPLOYER SANCTIONS The following shows the number of fines and arrests resulting from federal efforts targeting employers who hire illegal immigrants: Year, Fines, Arrests 1999 417 2,849 2000 178 953 2001 100 735 2002 53 485 2003 162 445 2004 3 445 2005 2 465 2006 0 522 Source: Daily News research; Government Accountability Office160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!