Wal-Mart raids send signal to other firms, intentional or not

They worry INS will again crack down on illegal workers, though most experts don't see new dragnet.

In the late 1980s, many American employers worried - with good reason - about a knock on the door from immigration officials on the watch against workers who were in the US illegally.

But in recent years, and especially since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks turned Washington's attention in new directions, the number of corporations fined for immigration violations has plunged.

Now, in the wake of federal raids last week on the nation's largest retailer, many are wondering if the trend is tilting back toward tougher federal enforcement, with corporate payroll records once again the front line in the war against illegal immigration.

Wal-Mart is no ordinary target. Nor does the crackdown involve a straightforward charge that the retail giant directly hired illegal workers. Rather, it alleges that executives had direct knowledge that janitors were illegal immigrants - a charge Wal-Mart denies.

Dubbed "Operation Rollback," the sweep sent shockwaves into companies across the country. It also rekindled the debate over reform affecting the nation's estimated 7 million illegal immigrants. But that doesn't mean it's a harbinger of sweeping crackdown.

On immigration laws, enforcement that's all but stopped

Indeed, many immigration experts suggest this is an isolated incident involving Wal-Mart and an ongoing internal probe into its labor practices. For more than a decade, they say, the unspoken policy of workplace enforcement has been to look the other way inside companies - and that will likely stay the same.

"Since the late '90s, enforcement of immigration laws inside the country has all but stopped. And that hasn't changed under the Bush administration," says Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies. "So I don't expect this is the start of a new comprehensive enforcement strategy."

Statistics tell the story: In 1990, 14,311 employers were fined for hiring illegal immigrants. That number dropped to 7,115 by 1998 and 178 by 2000, according to the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego. All the while, border crossings remained steady.

Experts say it's been an unacknowledged fact for the past decade that if illegal immigrants could make it into the US undetected, they wouldn't be followed to the work site. Employers could face civil or criminal charges if found guilty of breaking a 1986 federal law requiring them to verify that employees are legally authorized to work in the US.

Now the sweep has stoked the old debate over immigration reform - one left simmering after Sept. 11.

A wink and a nod - and a change?

For years, Congress simply winked and focused immigration efforts elsewhere, says Deborah Meyers, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. But INS officials have turned their attention to capturing illegal immigrants who are also criminals.

"In the late 1990s, the federal government basically decided it would not do much interior enforcement," says Ms. Meyers. "It was going to make it really difficult to come here by fortifying the US border. But once you got here, it wasn't going to go to much effort to track you down."

That policy change stemmed from several high-profile immigrant roundups that resulted in work stoppages and lost income in certain industries, such as onion farming and meatpacking.

States were quickly learning that illegal immigration was necessary to keep their economies afloat, and were leaning on representatives to make sure the workplace raids did not continue.

There have been a few noteworthy raids, however - especially after Sept. 11, when the country's focus turned to safety. Operation Tarmac, for instance, concentrated on rooting out illegal immigrants from the country's airports.

But the Wal-Mart raid took many immigrants' rights groups - and employers - by surprise. They hoped it was not a sign of things to come, but also saw it as an opportunity to shed light on a broken system

"Everyone agrees that our current immigration system doesn't work. This raid is just another example of that," says Judy Golub, senior director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington. "I want my government to go after terrorists, not janitors."

Her organization her organization joins a chorus of others in supporting amnesty for many of the illegal immigrants already here, a guest-worker program to bring others in on a temporary basis, and a faster system for family reunification.

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