DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is tentatively scheduled to testify before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee about DHS immigration enforcement policies on May 6, 2009. Given Secretary Napolitano’s novel interpretations of federal law, the Heritage Foundation will be posting a series of questions (and suggested answers) for the Secretary.

Question # 3: What is the Obama Administration policy on workplace raids – will raids continue and will both employers and illegal employees be prosecuted?

When the Bush Administration began enforcing immigration laws, the frequency of worksite arrests jumped from 845 in fiscal year (FY) 2004 to 6,287 in FY 2008. Worksite raids have been extremely controversial, greatly tainting overall perceptions of immigration enforcement, even though they affect only a minuscule percentage of aliens arrested. In FY 2007, only 4,940 of the 1,210,772 total illegal immigrants detained in 2007 were arrested through worksite enforcement. The media has covered ICE raids with much consternation, primarily due to the humanitarian concerns about families being separated by deportation. The worksite raids can cause the detainees’ children, most of them U.S.-born citizens, to suffer when their parents are detained and deported.

The worksite raids also disrupt local communities because of the large number of people arrested. ICE has been conscious of this and has attempted to find ways to target egregious abusers of illegal workers while being compassionate toward the families hit by deportation. ICE has started several initiatives to allow families to stay together during the deportation process, including opening the T. Don Hutto Residential Detention Center, which is a 512-bed facility that allows the family to stay together during the detention and removal process. In addition, ICE allows the release of sole caregivers from deten­tion facilities.

However, because ICE prefers to keep families together, some parents do not report to ICE officers that they have children for fear of the children also being deported. A study found that half of detainees have children, making this a serious concern for ICE. To ensure a proper degree of care and compassion, ICE must coordinate with the local community before and after raids, including working with schools, social services, and churches to ensure that no children are being left behind, and quickly release sole caregivers to minimize the time that children of single parents are left in the care of others.

Despite these negative aspects of worksite enforcement, however, these raids are critical elements of the federal governments renewed commitment to enforce existing immigration laws. Along with the enhanced security operations on the border and other interior enforcement actions, workplace raids send a clear message to both the scofflaw employers who hire illegal labor and to those illegal immigrants already here or considering coming here that America’s jobs are for its citizens and legal immigrants.

The vast majority of illegal immigrants come for a job, not to commit crimes. By failing to conduct workplace raids or only punishing employers, you are signaling to employers that they should continue to hire illegal labor, safe from the uncertainty of a workplace raid and you are signaling to immigrants to continue to come illegally.

Secretary Janet Napolitano recently changed the policy on workplace raids. It is worse than the old “catch and release” policy. The new policy goes one step beyond “catch and release” — or takes two steps back from where we are — by giving illegal immigrants Employment Authorization Documents (EAD) (i.e, work permits) to stay and work. These permits are substantively no different than the permits given to law abiding people who follow the rules and wait their turn to obtain a green card or citizenship.

The policy came to light following an employer raid in Bellingham, Washington that caught 28 illegal immigrants. DHS gave these illegal immigrations the EADs in “exchange for cooperating with an ongoing investigation of their employer” and the EADs expire once the case against the employer is over. There is a real risk that this new policy will result in a functional return to the “catch and release” era. This new policy undermines all of the hard work and effort spent over the last four years to put teeth in our immigration policy.

For more information on Heritage Foundation’s views on internal immigration enforcement, check out a recent backgrounder by Diem Nguyen, Matt Mayer, and Jim Carafano, Next Steps for Immigration Reform and Workplace Enforcement.