Thursday, January 25, 2018
Back to the Future? Shifting Gears, Trump Administration Launches High-Profile Worksite Enforcement Operations
In January 2018, the Trump administration carried out its largest immigration action yet against a U.S. employer, with hundreds of federal immigration agents descending upon 98 stores in the 7-Eleven chain in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The enforcement operation, which occurred without prior notice to store management, resulted in the arrest of 21 unauthorized immigrants and may lead to criminal charges or fines for the employers. While few immigrants were arrested, the highly visible action—targeting a chain of convenience stores known for their presence in working-class and immigrant communities—sends a clear message that the workplace is not free from immigration enforcement. And it may also signal a major shift in worksite enforcement policy from the previous administration.
About 6.5 million unauthorized immigrants are employed in the United States, making up 4.5 percent of the total employed population. While experts generally agree that workplace actions represent an essential part of a balanced immigration enforcement regime, approaches have varied significantly between administrations. Some have used high-profile worksite operations while others favor administrative audits, with compliance actions varying between a focus on employees versus employers.
The 7-Eleven sweep was reportedly the product of an investigation that had begun in 2013. However, during the Obama administration, workplace enforcement rarely led to onsite operations or the arrests of individual employees. Those arrested in the 7-Eleven actions would ordinarily not have been a priority for arrest or removal in the latter years of the Obama administration, when enforcement was strictly focused on noncitizens convicted of serious crimes, recent border crossers, or those who had violated a recent deportation order.
Thus, the Trump administration may be signaling a worksite enforcement approach that distinguishes it from the Obama years, in line with many of its other moves on immigration enforcement. Though in an act that appeared to cut against its messaging of new toughness in the workplace, President Trump in December 2017 commuted the 27-year prison sentence of a meatpacking CEO ensnared in a 2008 raid that netted the arrests of nearly 400 workers.
This Migration Policy Institute article examines how this new approach to workplace enforcement compares with those of prior administrations and how it fits with the President’s larger plan for immigration enforcement, including the message the government intends to send unauthorized immigrants.