Refocusing on legal work options is the next logical step for Biden on immigration enforcement

KENT, Ohio — Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued a memo that halted raids on workplaces where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) suspects undocumented immigrants are employed.

Ending ICE’s little-known public-private partnership (PPP) called ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE) and making it easier to hire workers legally would be the logical next step. New research shows that the program doesn’t provide public safety benefits.

With IMAGE, ICE provides training to employers meant to deter and prevent the use of fraudulent identification documents and encourages employers to notify if they suspect an individual is undocumented. In return, IMAGE offers the participating companies several benefits.

First and foremost, ICE waives fines related to hiring undocumented workers if violations are discovered.

IMAGE fits neatly within the immigration enforcement strategy of attrition through enforcement. By making it difficult to live and work here, these types of programs aim to encourage undocumented workers to leave voluntarily. Notably, these programs focus enforcement on immigrants rather than the businesses that hire them.

Immigration-related prosecutions are already rare. According to Duke Law School’s Corporate Prosecution Registry, there were only 16 immigration prosecutions against businesses during the Trump administration. At the same time, thousands of individuals are deported or prosecuted for entering the country without permission.

Although IMAGE has existed since 2006, my study is the first to examine its effectiveness and potential unintended consequences. For example, these partnerships between employers and ICE could be enabling ICE to make more arrests outside of the workplace raids.

To test this idea, I obtained the names and locations of all IMAGE employers. As of September 2018, when ICE released the information, there were 566 IMAGE agreements in 204 counties nationwide.

Communities with IMAGE-participating businesses are significantly more likely to experience community arrests, my findings confirmed. Yet these increased arrests are not associated with any increased crime rates. Instead, IMAGE insulates employers and turns the heat up on undocumented workers.

In practice, that looks like the raids on June 19, 2018, when ICE agents moved on three meat processing plants in Ohio, arresting 146 individuals. All three of the plants were operated by Fresh Mark, one of the pioneering IMAGE partners.

These arrests have devastating impacts on families and communities. The American Psychological Association states these enforcement actions have a destabilizing effect in immigrant homes and cause psychological trauma for children of immigrants.

I recently spoke with Sister Rene Weeks, of the St. Paul Catholic Church in Salem, which helped the families impacted by the Fresh Mark raids. Her description of the aftermath of the events matches the APA’s findings.

“We had one family of five children without their parents,” Sister Weeks recalled. “I remember the youngest child was inconsolably upset, crying ‘Where’s mom?’ We tried to comfort her, but there was nothing we could do.”

Many of the people arrested were documented immigrants with legal authorization to work, Sister Weeks explained. They simply didn’t have their papers on them at the time.

Some of the immigrants that Sister Weeks helped after the 2018 raid later returned to work at the plant. This may be surprising, but it reflects the US economy’s need for immigrant workers.

Data released this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed about 10.4 million job openings nationally, but only 7.4 million unemployed people. There are more jobs than unemployed people in 42 states.

Expanding guest worker visas and creating a long-term pathway to citizenship (something Congress came close to passing before), could kill two birds with one stone. By making it easier to hire workers legally, fewer businesses will turn to unauthorized workers.

Fundamentally, programs that only target immigrant workers can’t meet the needs of communities across the country.

The Biden administration will do well to continue its path in replacing programs like IMAGE with legal immigration options.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.