Federal immigration enforcement at worksites will focus less on rounding up of illegal workers and more on bosses who knowingly hired them.

That’s the gist of an announcement from the Department of Homeland Security, one chief industry lobbyist said.

In particular, the agency’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division has been instructed to take action against employers and supervisors who “knowingly” hire illegal workers, in addition to the workers themselves.

The policy shift by the Department of Homeland Security on April 30 is important because it is  formal and in writing, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

In contrast, Gasperini said the Bush administration’s policy was more focused on rounding up illegal workers at worksites, though that policy was panned by some critics as a “catch and release” strategy.

However, he said May 4 it is too early to say precisely what it means for agricultural employers because the lack of specifics in the DHS announcement.

Gasperini said federal officials are now apparently focused on employers who cultivate employment of illegal workers knowingly.

The agency’s focus on employers who intentionally break the law should exclude many agricultural employers who don’t know that employees they have hired provided false documents, he said.

However, he said the shift in policy doesn’t necessarily mean agricultural employers aren’t still at risk from immigration raids. It is possible, he said, immigration and customs agents may try to find “low hanging fruit” to generate enforcement numbers, and Gasperini said agricultural workers are in plain view.

How field level enforcement changes under the new policy will take time to determine, Gasperini said.

According to a fact sheet from the Department of Homeland Security:

  • Of the more than 6,000 arrests related to worksite enforcement in 2008, only 135 were employers.
  • Updated worksite enforcement guidance was distributed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in late April. The new department-wide focus targets criminal aliens and employers who cultivate illegal workplaces by breaking the country’s laws and knowingly hiring illegal workers
  • Effective immediately, ICE will focus resources on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers in order to target the root cause of illegal immigration.
  • ICE will continue to arrest illegal workers who are found in the course of the worksite enforcement actions.