WASHINGTON - Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, blasted the Bush administration Thursday for conducting what Democrats described as harsh and punitive immigration raids, calling special attention to a raid at a kosher meatpacking plant in Iowa in May where nearly 400 illegal workers, mainly Guatemalans, were arrested in the largest worksite immigration raid in U.S. history.
Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee's immigration panel, said at a hearing on the raid that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up workers at the Agriprocessors meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, and then they were "herded into a cattle arena and prodded down a cattle chute, coerced into guilty pleas and then to federal prison."
In all, 306 illegal immigrants ultimately were charged with Social Security fraud for using illegal Social Security numbers, and also a more serious offense, aggravated identity theft, which carried a two-year minimum sentence. The government offered a plea bargain to dismiss the identity theft charge in return for their admission to the lesser offense, which gave them a five-month sentence and order of removal.
Lofgren and other Democrats on the panel accused the administration of targeting workers instead of employers in what has become a major enforcement crackdown on illegal immigration since the collapse last year of a comprehensive immigration overhaul that would have eased legalization requirements. The overhaul was backed by President Bush and most Democrats, and opposed by most Republicans. It died in the Senate in June 2007.
At the time, the administration was widely criticized by members of both parties for years of lax immigration enforcement. When the immigration overhaul effort failed, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff said he had no alternative but to enforce existing law. He proceeded to administer a wide-ranging crackdown, both at the border and with high-profile raids of employers known to hire large numbers of illegal immigrants.
Arrests have been rising sharply, from just 176 criminal and 1,116 administrative arrests in 2005, to 863 criminal and 4,077 administrative arrests in 2007. That number is set to rise again this year; as of this month, the immigration enforcement agency, commonly known as ICE, has made 949 criminal arrests and more than 3,500 administrative arrests. Of the criminal arrests, the agency said 105 are of owners, managers and supervisors of the offending businesses.
Administration officials from the enforcement agency and the Justice Department staunchly defended the Postville raid, saying immigrants were given legal counsel and humanitarian assistance and efforts were to avoid separating parents from their children. They said 62 immigrants were released on humanitarian grounds.
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Marcy Forman, director of investigations for the immigration enforcement agency, said "continued aggressive enforcement is establishing a culture of immigration compliance in America."
Deborah Rhodes, a senior associate deputy attorney general representing the Justice Department, said the vast majority - hundreds of those arrested at the Postville plant had stolen identities.
The agency said immigrant advocacy groups have roundly condemned the raids, and Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., said such raids would never be tolerated by non-Latino ethnic groups.
"When dealing with Anglo identity theft suspects, is federal law enforcement going to start cordoning off white neighborhoods or workplaces, handcuffing and detaining everyone, and only then sorting out the accused?" Conyers asked. "What about in the African American neighborhoods? Or on Indian reservations? Would anyone be shocked if such indiscriminate sweeps resulted in an immediate and loud response?"
Republicans on the committee were more interested in the growing problem of identity theft, in which illegal workers use valid but stolen Social Security numbers from legal workers to obtain employment.
Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River (Sacramento County), pointed to the increased presence of illegal workers in the construction industry as evidence that they are taking jobs that legal workers, especially young African American men, would be willing to fill.
The issue promises to remain at a stalemate until the next president takes office. After roiling Congress last year, immigration has played a much smaller role in the current presidential election than might have been expected because both candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, supported the effort to expand avenues to legal immigration.
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle