Leader of U.S. immigration agency pledges to punish employers of illegal immigrants
By Lynn Franey
The Kansas City Star, December 28, 2007
Despite opposition on Capitol Hill, Shawnee native Julie Myers recently won the U.S. Senate's approval to continue leading the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
The Kansas City Star talked Thursday with Myers about her plans for the agency in 2008.
In her two years leading the agency, Myers has won kudos for increasing deportations of illegal immigrants.
But she also was criticized by Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, for not pressing forward with more criminal investigations of people who employ illegal immigrants. Myers' actions at an agency Halloween party, where she praised the originality of an ICE worker's costume of dreadlocks, jail outfit and face makeup, also angered McCaskill and other senators.
But on Dec. 19, the 38-year-old Myers received the Senate's official nomination to lead the agency, which has a budget of nearly $5 billion and more than 15,000 employees. Myers, whose husband is the U.S. attorney in Kansas City, has led the agency for two years under emergency appointments by President Bush.
The Star's questions for Myers:
The Star: What is your primary goal for the immigration enforcement part of your agency in the coming year?
Myers: I have three primary goals in the coming year. The first involves sustained progress on worksite enforcement. We have been working to encourage U.S. attorneys to bring cases against egregious employers. In Missouri, we're forming the Missouri Gateway Task Force, which will be a combination of federal, state and local law enforcement to work with the U.S. attorneys to go after employers. That will show results in going after the employment magnet.
The second focus on the immigration front will be to continue to transform the criminal alien program. One of my primary focuses and concerns has been aliens who are released from correctional institutions into society. We've moved from charging 57,000 aliens (people in prisons with immigration violations) in 2006 to 147,000 in 2007, and I believe it is going to be over 180,000 in fiscal year 2008.
The third goal is to institutionalize the oversight that we've done on (immigration) detention facilities. We've set up programs - detention field inspection group, the quality assurance group in federal institutions - to make sure our facilities are up to speed. We formulated all our intergovernmental service agreements with state and local jails to have performance-based contracting put in their contracts: as part of their requirements they have to live up to ICE detention standards.
The Star: Does the agency plan any new steps or new focus on assembling evidence for criminal charges against employers who hire illegal immigrants, not just criminal charges against illegal immigrants and document forgers?
Myers: That has always been a core part of my focus. Many of those cases take a considerable amount of time; often the aliens can then sometimes cooperate against the employer and be witnesses against the employer. In one local case, the George's Chicken case (a poultry processor in southwest Missouri), originally we arrested some aliens, but they have now moved up the management chain. There are greater steps we can take. We have 40 new auditors around the country. These people are in place to do I-9 (required employment-eligibility forms) audits to make sure we can pursue criminal charges.
It is difficult because the standard is not strict liability. You cannot say, 'There are illegal aliens working in the plant' (and charge the employer). We have to show they knowingly hired (illegal aliens), and given the prevalence of document fraud, that is difficult. These are turning into more sophisticated white-collar cases that on the federal side take 18 months to two years (to investigate). I'm confident we will have some good cases going forward.
The Star: Why do you think we have seen a surge in identify theft by illegal immigrants to get jobs, when they used to just make up a Social Security number and use their own name when they applied for work? What is ICE doing to battle that growing problem?
Myers: We've established document and benefit fraud task forces in 17 cities across the country that look at document and benefit fraud not only in the workplace but also in other environments - document vendor rings that operate to smuggle people in and commit other kinds of crimes. What we're seeing in the workplace is emblematic. Given the changes in technology, it's become much, much easier, unfortunately, for someone's identity to be stolen, to have documents made that appear to be genuine and the person then goes out and uses that document.