WASHINGTON — In raids that set a record for workplace-enforcement arrests in a single day, immigration officials announced Thursday that they had taken 1,187 illegal immigrants into custody at wood products plants in 26 states and had charged seven company managers with crimes that can carry long prison terms.
The operation targeted about 40 plants operated by IFCO Systems North America, a Dutch company based in Houston that is the largest manufacturer of wooden pallets in the country. Two California facilities were hit, with eight arrests in Bakersfield and 29 in San Bernardino.
Wednesday's raids, the culmination of a yearlong investigation, came at a sensitive time. Congress is returning from spring recess next week deeply divided on how to overhaul immigration laws.
Reaction to the raids reflected the well-drawn lines in the debate. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement, "A photo-op crackdown by [the Bush administration's Homeland Security Department] to prove a political point won't erase its failed record." But conservative Republicans hailed the action. "Reform starts with the border but doesn't stop there.... [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's announcement] shows his continued commitment to immigration enforcement," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in a statement.
The raids contained tacit warnings for everyone involved in the debate on immigration.
For conservative Republicans who have argued for a hard-line approach that focuses exclusively on tougher enforcement, the scale of the raids and the arrest of managers could be seen as a demonstration that the Bush administration could be trusted to enforce immigration laws vigorously. Though hiring illegal immigrants has been a crime since 1986, there has been virtually no enforcement of that law, a fact that angers conservatives.
President Bush, many moderate Republicans and most Democrats favor stricter security but say it can be effective only if accompanied by a program that allows foreign workers to enter the country legally and by provisions permitting most current illegal immigrants to earn legal status. Thursday's actions were a vivid reminder that such raids could become a regular feature of life for immigrants if a way out of the current impasse is not found and public unhappiness over the immigration problem grows.
The business community, which generally supports a program that would ensure a supply of foreign workers, has kept a low profile in the controversy. The arrest of managers Thursday served notice that its stake in the issue was more than economic.
Chertoff said the operation marked a new commitment to enforcing immigration laws in the workplace and, with the use of criminal charges against managers that carry tough penalties, a new strategy for dealing with people who hire undocumented workers.
"Americans are rightly concerned about the need to enforce immigration law," Chertoff said, pledging to strengthen efforts to pursue firms that hire illegal immigrants.
"We are going to move beyond the current level of activity to a higher level in each month and year to come," he said, adding that the overall strategy "is designed to look at the business of illegal immigration and attack that business at every point of vulnerability."
According to a federal affidavit filed in the northern New York district where the case is to be prosecuted:
The investigation that produced Wednesday's raids began with a tip that IFCO workers in New York were seen ripping up their W-2 income tax forms and that an assistant manager had explained that the workers were illegal immigrants who had fake Social Security cards and did not intend to file taxes.
Through an informant who was an illegal immigrant, federal agents learned that the company reimbursed workers for obtaining fraudulent documents, recruited illegal immigrants and advised such immigrants on how to avoid detection, according to the affidavit.
Besides the alleged illegal immigrants' arrests, seven current and former IFCO managers were each charged with conspiring to transport, harbor, encourage and induce illegal immigrants to enter the United States. Two other employees were arrested on criminal charges related to document fraud.
The conspiracy charges carry penalties of up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000 for each illegal immigrant involved in the violations.
The weight of criminal charges is central to the new strategy, said Julie L. Myers, assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Companies saw the past enforcement approach -- in which they might pay fines for hiring illegal immigrants -- as just another cost of doing business, Myers said. But her agency will no longer tolerate such corporate officers, she said.
"Just a small fine or a slap on the wrist is not enough of a deterrent," Myers said. "The prospect of 10 years in prison carries much sharper teeth."