ATLANTA — To critics of the administration's immigration policies, the Department of Homeland Security sent out a strong message this week: Current laws can discourage illegal immigrants and those who hire them.
On Wednesday, federal immigration officials stormed light manufacturing facilities in Atlanta and 41 other US locales, arresting more than 1,100 suspected illegal immigrants as well as people believed to have hired them.
On Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a refocusing of resources that would target employers "harboring aliens for illegal advantages." The initiative is an attempt to go after such employers with the same intensity applied to other criminal organizations.
"[Wednesday's arrests] are symbolically very important and may suggest either a testing of this particular variation of immigration policy or it may indicate a movement in a more punitive direction to try to prevent or limit the inflow of undocumented workers," says Dan Cornfield, a Vanderbilt University sociologist and editor of the "Work and Occupations" journal. "It's a message that the US, right now, won't condone that type of employer behavior."
The massive raids on Wednesday netted 1,187 arrests, more than all illegal immigrants arrested last year.
In 2005, officials arrested 150 suspected illegal immigrants, mostly at North Carolina military installations. Just over 100 people have been arrested this year in smaller stings, one at a Missouri construction site, the other at a New Jersey car wash.
Wednesday's arrests were apparently timed to an announcement by Mr. Chertoff and the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie Myers, in Washington on Thursday.
Secretary Chertoff said the effort is aimed at those who are "exploiting illegal aliens" and "who adopt as a business model the systematic violation of immigration laws." The federal government will "make sure we come down as hard as possible."
The hiring of undocumented immigrants was the focus of legislation passed by the House of Representatives last year, including increased penalties for those who break the law and a national system for electronically verifying worker status.
The federal government is making other, quieter efforts to respond to the public outcry over the surge in illegal immigration during the decade.
Atlanta recently saw the arrival of 70 extra federal agents to clear a backlog of naturalization requests, some going back 10 years. It's all part of a quiet movement on the federal government to heed public outcry, some say.
"There's little doubt that something is going to happen, because the public is demanding it now," says Maritza Pichon, executive director of the Latin American Association in Atlanta.
Though there are some "bad actors" who exploit workers and the law, most businesses that hire illegals are complying with federal law, industry groups say. The problem is that many illegals carry fraudulent documentation. New rules will tighten up requirements on employers.
Stricter enforcement "is an effort to create an environment that allows broader reforms to move forward," says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform in Washington.
But "I'd rather see resources short-term going into [battling] organized human smuggling and exploitation as opposed to putting all of America's dairy farms out of business that have an immigrant workforce and that have met their responsibilities under the law," he says.
"This situation is not much different than the prohibition era," he adds. "You have well intended and poorly conceived laws that spawn organized criminal activity and make lawbreakers out of otherwise contributing and law-abiding people."
Others see it as a piecemeal attempt by a White House and Congress who have been negligent in addressing a problem that has developed in front of Americans' eyes over the past 10 years.
"In a world where illegals can register kids for school, where state police stop them on speeding violations and don't tell federal authorities, the reality is it's very difficult for the federal government to do this alone," says Peter Morici, a labor economist at the University of Maryland in College Park. "Politicians are very happy to hammer on employers, but they're not willing to take actions within their grasp" to pass comprehensive reform, he says.
The arrests Wednesday, which spanned nine states, netted hundreds of rank-and-file workers as well as seven current and former executives of IFCO Systems, a manufacturer of crates and pallets. The executives were charged with harboring and transporting and encouraging illegal workers to reside in the US. Because it was called a "criminal investigation," Ms. Pichon says there are few signs that such investigations are likely to target undocumented day laborers.
What's problematic for politicians is that Americans are torn over whether to uproot what are usually solid, hardworking families or demand a law-abiding society, immigration experts say.
But few observers believe this week's action represents more than a drop in the bucket in the battle to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
"If you're talking about people coming into the US, the stream of immigrants, both legal and illegal, will continue, because these the need for economic and social improvement overrides any fears" of arrest, says Rudy Rodriguez, a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton.