From 2006-2008, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a number of large-scale immigration raids. Some of these enforcement sweeps made national headlines because of the number of immigrants who were apprehended. But these raids also became “breaking news” as a result of the response from local leaders who decried their destructive impact on families, businesses and communities. Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national organization established by Lutheran churches in the United States to serve uprooted people, joined then with community and faith leaders to call on the federal government to rethink its approach to worksite enforcement – and stands by that challenge today.
The largest single-site immigration raid in history took place in August 2008 at an electrical equipment plant in Laurel, Mississippi. In total, ICE arrested 595 immigrant workers. Following the raid, many community members lived in fear – even causing some parents to keep their kids at home instead of sending them to school. The Rev. H. Julian Gordy, Bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and chair of the Conference of Bishops’ immigration task force, reflected, “Given the harmful impact of these raids, we must reform our immigration enforcement policies to better protect our communities and families.”
One of the most controversial immigration raids occurred in May 2008 in Postville, Iowa, a small town with less than 2,400 inhabitants. ICE agents swept in to the town with helicopters and arrested 389 immigrant workers at a meat processing plant, nearly 20 percent of the town’s population. Speaking to hundreds of community members in Postville shortly after the raid, the Rev. Steven L. Ullestad, ELCA Bishop of the Northeastern Iowa Synod, offered the following sobering assessment:
“Businesses are dramatically impacted. Teachers wonder how many jobs will be lost for next year. Landlords have lost renters, bankers have lost clients, (and) grocery store owners their customers. People who have been active and responsible members of their community have been lost.”
Furthermore, ICE agents used aggressive negotiating tactics and brought charges of aggravated identify theft against the workers, nearly all of whom were represented by overburdened appointed counsel. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the federal government overstepped in applying these charges.
Months following the Postville raid, ICE revealed that it had spent over $5.2 million to conduct this one enforcement operation. Recognizing the extreme hardship small towns like Postville and Laurel faced, many questioned whether U.S. taxpayers were benefiting from these costly enforcement operations.
In April 2009, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced a shift in policy, issuing guidance that ICE would focus worksite enforcement resources on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hired unauthorized immigrant workers. In fiscal year 2010, ICE conducted audits of more than 2,740 companies and levied nearly $7 million in civil fines on businesses that employed undocumented workers. In addition, ICE recently announced plans to establish an audit office to strengthen its efforts to investigate businesses’ hiring records.
Despite ICE’s shift away from large-scale immigration raids, smaller enforcement efforts continue to impact communities. According to recent media reports, on January 20, 2011, ICE conducted a raid in Ellensburg, Washington, a city of 17,000 residents. Federal officers apprehended 30 immigrants in their homes, leaving community members to struggle with the consequences, such as caring for the children separated from their families. The following day, hundreds of people gathered at a local church to discuss what happened and how to support those directly affected.
“Communities and families will continue to suffer until the federal government overhauls our immigration system in a way that strikes a fair balance between America’s commitment to continue welcoming migrants and the need to enforce U.S. laws,” stated Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO. “LIRS stands with all who contribute to build welcoming communities for newcomers and we are committed to working with the 112th Congress and the Administration to continue to advance bipartisan immigration reforms.”