Arrests of illegal immigrant workers have dropped precipitously under President Obama, according to figures released Wednesday.
Criminal arrests, administrative arrests, indictments and convictions of illegal immigrants at work sites all fell by more than 50 percent from fiscal 2008 to fiscal 2009.
The figures show that Mr. Obama has made good on his pledge to shift enforcement away from going after illegal immigrant workers themselves - but at the expense of Americans' jobs, said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the Republican who compiled the numbers from the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE).
Mr. Smith, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said a period of economic turmoil is the wrong time to be cutting enforcement and letting illegal immigrants take jobs that Americans otherwise would hold.
"Those stolen jobs should be returned to out-of-work citizens and legal immigrants," he said. "The Obama administration should put citizens and legal immigrants first, especially when it comes to jobs."
One area where the Obama administration has made progress was in audits of businesses' I-9 forms, which jumped 300 percent. Those audits could produce fines in the future, but Republicans said that most businesses consider them a cost of doing business, not a deterrent.
The numbers were released just days after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the administration has made such advances on border security that Congress should now work on legalizing illegal immigrants.
"These statistics reflect a myopic, outdated and distorted view of effective enforcement," said Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler. "Just a week ago, we highlighted the more than 11,000 murderers, rapists and kidnappers identified in our jails by the Secure Communities program in the last year, nearly 2,000 of which have already been deported. ICE has prioritized its enforcement efforts by focusing on hardened criminals and employers who knowingly hire illegal workers and break the law."
Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice, an immigrant rights advocacy group, said Mr. Smith shouldn't be surprised - this is what Mr. Obama promised to change from the George W. Bush administration, which focused heavily on illegal immigrant workers rather than employers.
He said it marks a major change from former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to Ms. Napolitano, and that it will pay dividends as employers take heed.
"I would argue that Napolitano's being tough and smart, rather than what Chertoff did, which was looking tough but giving employers a pass," Mr. Sharry said. "I would suggest Lamar Smith is more interested in expelling millions of illegal workers than truly getting tough on bad-actor employers."
After Mr. Bush's efforts to pass an immigration bill failed in 2007, Mr. Chertoff said he would step up enforcement on his own and that workplaces would be a key target.
That led to high-profile raids and drew protests from immigrant rights groups who said families were being separated by the actions.
During last year's presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said those efforts were misplaced and he promised to refocus on unscrupulous employers who made a pattern of hiring illegal immigrants.
According to the newly released figures, administrative arrests of violators of immigration laws fell 68 percent from 2008 to 2009, criminal arrests fell 60 percent, criminal indictments fell 58 percent and convictions fell 63 percent.
Fiscal 2008 ran from Oct. 1, 2007, through Sept. 30, 2008. Fiscal 2009 began Oct. 1, 2008, and ran through Sept. 30 of this year. Mr. Obama took office Jan. 20.
In an April memo, Marcy M. Forman, director of ICE's Office of Investigation, laid out the new enforcement policy.
She said arresting illegal immigrant workers is still important but the focus must shift to employers.
"Enforcement efforts focused on employers better target the root causes of illegal immigration," she said, pointing to numbers that showed that under the Bush administration in 2008, employers made up just 2 percent of all work site arrests.
She also said ICE agents also should go after employers not just for hiring, but also look for mistreatment of workers and evidence of human trafficking, identity fraud or money laundering.
The Obama administration has promised to pursue a new legalization program next year. It would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who commit to steps such as paying back taxes and waiting a set period of years.
In a speech last week, Ms. Napolitano said they have made enough progress on border security and immigration enforcement that Congress can now turn its attention to legalization.
But Republicans said her speech was premature. They pointed to uncertainties about the numbers and that with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants still being apprehended on the borders, the flow has not been controlled.
They also argue that legalizing illegal immigrants in the middle of a recession is unfair to Americans looking for jobs.
Led by Mr. Smith and Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, House Republicans are holding a forum Thursday to look at how illegal immigrants are affecting the job market.
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