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Two methods in enforcing illegal immigrant hiring law

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration is trying both carrot and stick in enforcing the law against hiring illegal immigrants. The carrot is harder to measure than the stick.

Statistics show the administration's success with the stick. Work site enforcement arrests are up, a lot. The number of individuals arrested in work site cases has jumped nearly tenfold since 2002.

Before, "it was like a traffic citation," Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Dean Boyd said. By contrast, "we are bringing criminal prosecutions and putting people in jail."

But even as officials cite the 4,383 work site enforcement arrests made in 2006, up from 510 arrests made in 2002, measuring the results of a complementary work site program has proved to be much more difficult. This could complicate the immigration debate in Congress, which resumes next year.

In July, to great fanfare, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a new cooperative program designed to be the carrot in the fight against illegal immigration. Dubbed IMAGE, the program unites federal government and private employers in a common cause of excluding illegal immigrants from the U.S. workforce.

"If the government is going to fully address the problem of illegal alien employment, it must partner with employers, educate them and provide them with the tools they need," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said at the time.

The program offers employers training on proper hiring procedures and fraudulent document detection. Employers also learn about the latest illegal immigrant work scams. In turn, the companies open their books to federal investigators. Their hiring practices are audited, and they enroll in a computerized employment verification system that's already used voluntarily by other companies.

If all goes well, the employers get a stamp of approval as "IMAGE certified." In July, federal officials predicted this designation would "become an industry standard."

Four months later, federal officials say they don't even know how many employers have signed up for the program. They also declined to identify any that had.

"We've been in conversations with employers," Boyd said. "We've been in negotiations."

Boyd added that the agency "hopefully will be able to announce" the names of cooperating companies in coming weeks or months. The idea, he said, is for selected companies to become "charter" participants in the program and thereby show off its potential.

"We do have a fairly complex enrollment process," added Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback.

Certainly, the agency has invested in marketing the new program. In a closed-door Capitol Hill briefing Tuesday for congressional staff members, officials handed out glossy fliers and handsome pens embossed with the IMAGE slogan. Officials also have been contacting potential participants, and Zuieback said some companies have met all the requirements to be certified.

Still, the results haven't always been a public relations professional's dream.

"We are not aware of it," California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Dave Kranz said Wednesday. After further checking around the offices of the nation's largest farm bureau, Kranz added that "it's not anything we're familiar with."

California Chamber of Commerce spokesman Vince Sollito said Wednesday that he, too, hadn't heard of the four-month-old federal program. Neither had Ed Yates, president of the California League of Food Processors.

Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, N.C., signed up this summer. The required steps included checking workers' Social Security numbers against Social Security Administration records.

When some records didn't match, Smithfield fired about 50 workers thought to be illegal immigrants using false documents. Additional workers were put on notice, prompting an employee walkout on Nov. 17. The workers have since returned, and the company has agreed to give the fired employees more time to try to straighten out their records.

"Clearly," the company said in a statement Tuesday, "some employees were confused because of steps Smithfield had taken to assure the federal government that we do not knowingly employ undocumented workers."


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