President Barack Obama is the boss-buster in chief when it comes to going after employers who hire undocumented workers, according to U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.
"President Obama has the most border patrols and border security deployed at the border of any previous president," said Wasserman Schultz, in a June 20 interview on MSNBC. Obama "has cracked down on employers who are attracting undocumented immigrants and hiring them more than any previous president."
In a related fact-check, we gave Wasserman Schultz, who also serves as the Democratic National Committee chair, a Mostly True for her claim about border patrol and security. Here, we will explore if Obama holds the record for cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.
Workplace raids vs. paperwork raids
For some background, we turned to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that studies worldwide migration. Their 2013 paper about the history of immigration enforcement includes a chapter on workplace enforcement. We also found some background in a 2010 investigation from the Orange County Register.
After multiple efforts, Congress passed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which stated that employers couldn’t knowingly hire unauthorized workers. Employers must attest that they made a good faith effort to verify the eligibility of workers by completing an I-9 form.
The documents are easy to counterfeit, so the federal government developed an online employer verification system in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton, and the use of it soared after 2007. That system, now known as E-Verify, is currently voluntary, though some states mandate it for certain employers. (The Corker-Hoeven amendment to the Senate immigration bill would make it mandatory.) E-Verify spending dramatically increased under President George W. Bush and Obama.
Still, immigration rules have proved difficult to enforce. As of 2010, about 8 million unauthorized immigrants worked in the United States.
The federal government’s worksite enforcement strategy has changed over time as well, making it difficult to compare data and declare any president the leader in cracking down on employers, experts across the political spectrum told us.
At times, members in Congress have called for stiffer workplace enforcement. But when the reality hit home in their districts and led to complaints from business owners, politicians urged the federal government to ease up, according to border expert and University at Albany professor Rey Koslowski. That’s why border security has been more politically popular to fund than worksite enforcement. (We should note that a significant percentage of people working illegally don't cross the border; they simply overstay their visas.)
Doris Meissner, the Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Clinton, called worksite enforcement "a bit of a third rail." (She is one of the authors of the Migration Policy Institute paper. The Immigration and Naturalization Service is now called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.)
Under Bush, workplace raids on factories and meatpacking plants received much attention. But after Obama took office, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a new strategy and ditched the workplace raids, which also tended to punish employees, in favor of "paper raids" -- I-9 paperwork audits of employers to determine if they complied with employment eligibility verification laws.
"ICE will focus its resources within the worksite enforcement program on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers in order to target the root cause of illegal immigration," Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said in April 2009.
The change was dramatic: the number of I-9 audits soared from 503 in 2008 to more than 8,000 in 2009.
Under Obama, ICE announced sanctions against major employers. That included a $1 million fine gainst Abercrombie and Fitch that grew out of an I-9 inspection in November 2008 while Bush was president, and the termination of hundreds of workers at Chipotle restaurants.
In 2007, ICE arrested 92 employers, while in 2012 it arrested 240, according to ICE. Final orders -- rulings at the end of the case which show employers violated hiring rules -- also increased under Obama. In 2007, there were two final orders, while in 2012 there were 495.
But Obama doesn’t hold a record on final orders against employers. The numbers of final orders hit higher numbers in the 1990s. Those 495 final orders under Obama were consistently exceeded between 1992 and 1998, with a peak 1,063 final orders in 1992, according to data from the government’s Immigration Statistics yearbook.
Wasserman Schultz spokesman Jonathan Beeton sent us news reports showing an increase in I-9 audits and fines under Obama compared to Bush. (We were unable to obtain I-9 audit statistics from the 1990s, so we don’t know if Obama holds the record merely over Bush.)
Still, I-9 audits aren’t the only way to measure immigration enforcement. While audits have soared under Obama, other metrics have fallen, including arrests of employees, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restricting immigration.
That’s not a surprise, since Obama turned the focus away from the workers and toward employers. However, by ignoring the workers, "they are choosing to cut off a line of inquiry to nail employers," Vaughan told PolitiFact in an interview.
We asked Vaughan if she thinks Wasserman Schultz was correct to state that Obama holds the record on enforcement of employers.
"It depends on which metric you choose," she said. "If your metric is the number of audits, yes. If your metric is bringing cases to prosecution that seriously punish employers, to the point where I would say there would be a deterrent effect, I would strongly disagree with her statement."
Additionally, I-9 audits are not a complete or perfect measurement of worksite enforcement against employers who hired illegal workers, said former U.S. Rep. Bruce Morrison, D-Conn., who chaired the immigration subcommittee from 1989 to 1991. Morrison now lobbies on immigration matters and has informally advised hospitals and other businesses that have faced I-9 audits.
He described some of the I-9 audits as paperwork snafus -- for example an employer who didn’t check the right box.
"If there are no illegals, you are more likely to be cut a break on penalties than if you hired a lot of illegals, but you get fined anyhow..." he said. "Trying to say who is being tougher on this aspect of enforcement I think is kind of a silly discussion, because what were people fined for? And did that help prevent unauthorized employment or not?"
We also interviewed Carl Hampe, an attorney at Baker McKenzie who has represented employees in immigration cases since the 1990s and was an attorney for the Senate committee that drafted the 1986 law.
Hampe said that Wasserman Schultz’s claim "is not inaccurate, but given the changing enforcement strategies, it’s not quite that black and white."
In the 1990s, INS handled a higher number of civil cases, while Bush focused on criminal investigations against employers and workers. Obama has pursued civil audits and criminal investigations against employers.
"It’s hard to say whether Bush 43 or (Obama) is the hands-down winner," he said.
Wasserman Schultz said that Obama has cracked down "on employers who are attracting undocumented immigrants and hiring them more than any previous president."
She used the word "employers" and not "employees" here for a reason: Obama shifted away from Bush’s strategy of workplace raids and turned the focus on employers. Between 2008 and 2009, immigration audits soared from 503 to more than 8,000. But other metric tell a more nuanced story. Final orders against employers, for example, were higher in the 1990s than they are now.
We rate this claim Half True.