Immigration and Employment

Published — May 31, 2019

Employers escape sanctions, while the undocumented risk lives and prosecution

A still from an ICE informational video for a voluntary program to help employers avoid immigration violations. (ICE)

Only 11 people were prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers in the last year. 


Over a 12-month period ending in March, only 11 individuals were prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers and only three received any jail time, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Companies prosecuted for undocumented employees: zero.

Compare those paltry totals that to the 85,727 individuals prosecuted for entry illegal to the U.S. and 34,627 prosecuted for illegal re-entry during the same period, according to TRAC, which details Justice Department enforcement activity.  

The comparison dramatically underscores that fact that employers, for decades, have rarely paid a price for hiring undocumented workers — an underappreciated point that was highlighted in a piece the Center for Public Integrity published last February.

That story focused on President Donald Trump’s “blame game,” which heaps responsibility for wrongdoing on undocumented immigrants while failing to hold employers to account for hiring the undocumented for years — without risk. Trump’s own enterprises have hired undocumented workers for years, with the companies denying knowledge of awareness of such practices.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, though, has long urged Congress to approve legislation opening a path to legalization for workers embedded in communities. Business associations also favor the creation of a new worker visa system to replace one they argue doesn’t allow for filling legitimate labor shortages legally. These legislative proposals — which have gone nowhere — would have also required that employers start using E-Verify, a digital program for checking documents’ authenticity.

In the February commentary, I recalled meeting migrants a decade ago who’d been heading north for jobs when they were caught dropping over a fence into Arizona and deported back to Mexico.

A smuggler people the migrants paid had raped one of the women migrants.

A man in the group, Ramon Garcia, told me that during an earlier stint working in California he’d earned enough to pay off a $1,200 fee he’d paid to a smuggler, to get him north. Garcia pruned grapevines in Napa, picked tomatoes in Sacramento and harvested a range of other produce.

Thousands have also died trying to cross the border to get to jobs, since the U.S. began beefing up fencing and patrols more than two decades ago.

In 2002, while on a reporting trip with a Border Patrol agent in the Arizona desert I heard other agents radio colleagues that they’d found a skeleton among the cactus and mesquite. The agent

I was riding with told me about coming across a migrant who was still alive and one who had died: “He had foamed at the mouth and had suffered such a powerful seizure he had kicked off one of his shoes. He had come within yards of a water hole for cattle but was so far gone he missed it.”

Prosecutors who go after employers must prove that they knowingly hired undocumented workers. But that’s a high bar when employers can say they’re not required to check documents, and with complex webs of contracting that further insulate big companies from responsibility.

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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