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US immigration crackdown disrupts businesses

6 Jul

By Courtney Weaver, Financial Times

It started at Corso’s, an Ohio landscaping and gardening company, located near the Lake Erie shore. On June 5, beginning at 7am, 200 officials from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies descended on the company’s two locations, wielding guns and arresting 114 undocumented immigrant workers.

Two weeks later, at Fresh Mark, a meatpacking plant 120 miles to south in Ohio, as many as 100 officials from ICE, US Customs and Border Protection and the US Border Patrol rounded up 146 workers — many still dressed in the white lab coats, hair nets and boots they wear when making hot dogs, bacon and deli meats.

They were the two biggest immigration raids in the US in the past decade — and a signal of the broader shift of immigration policy under President Donald Trump. In contrast with the Obama administration, which focused on illegal immigrants with criminal records, Mr Trump has taken a broader-brush approach to immigration enforcement, often targeting workers who have lived in the US for years.

 In 2017, Mr Trump’s first year in office, ICE arrested more than 37,000 undocumented immigrants with no criminal record — compared with 22,000 with no criminal record who were arrested in 2016. Twenty-six per cent of the people arrested by ICE in 2017 had no criminal convictions.

In 2018, the trend has grown. In January, ICE swept through nearly 100 7-Eleven stores in more than a dozen states, arresting 21 people. In April, 97 workers were arrested at a meatpacking plant in Tennessee, the biggest single workplace raid in 10 years before last month’s Corso’s and Fresh Mark raids.

“They’re picking up people who normally wouldn’t have gotten picked up in previous years,” said Elizabeth Ford, an Ohio immigration attorney, who is representing individuals detained in the raids. “They weren’t considered priorities, and now they are . . . Now everybody is treated the same as a drug trafficker, versus someone who has spent years working at Corso’s.”

Jessica Ramos, a lawyer at the Ohio non-profit Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, said an estimated 40 women and 120 men remained in detention following the two Ohio raids. After the first raid on Corso’s, 80 to 100 children in the area were left without one or both of their primary caregivers, she said — a situation recalling the recent separation of migrant families at the Mexican border.

Many of her clients who work in agriculture face a daily decision on whether to take the risk and show up at their jobs or fail to provide for their children, many of them born in the US and citizens of the country.

“Our community has really been decimated,” said Veronica Dahlberg, executive director of the Latino advocacy group Hola Ohio. In the past, she said, many immigrants who did not have a criminal record, or who had children born in the US, were able to receive a stay on their deportation. More recently, ICE has been “issuing blanket denials”.

The White House and Department of Homeland Security have defended the raids, saying that the new approach is the only way to fix the country’s immigration system, which they say does not do enough to penalise people who enter the country illegally.

“Businesses who knowingly harbour and hire illegal aliens as a business model must be held accountable for their action,” Steve Francis, the special agent in charge of ICE’s investigative arm in Michigan and Ohio said in a statement, following the Fresh Mark raid.

Corso’s, the landscaping company, is located in Ohio’s farm belt, known for its rich soil thanks to its proximity to Lake Erie. Yet many employers in the area have struggled to find workers to fill the necessary summer jobs, said Sandy Munley, executive director of the Ohio Landscape Association.

“It’s extremely difficult for the landscape contractors to find staff members,” she said. “Most Americans don’t want to work a seasonal job . . . Right now we’re experiencing a dangerous labour shortage across the United States. There are more jobs than there are people to fill them.”

On January 1, the Department of Labor received more than 81,000 applications for H-2B visas for temporary non-agricultural workers — more than three times the number it received last year — and more than double the 33,000 visas that are awarded every six months on a lottery basis.

While the Department of Homeland Security announced in May that it would grant an additional 15,000 H-2B visas to US companies, not all companies will receive the visas they have requested and will need to cut back on contracts, said Ms Munley. The lack of certainty provided by the lottery process deals a second blow.

“It’s one heck of a way to run your business,” she said. “These companies have to run contracts well in advance of when they know whether they’re going to get the visas. They have overhead. They have equipment. If you don’t have the labour force to do the work, how do you pay your bills and how do you keep your local American workers employed?”

She added: “The way to help avoid having these problems is by providing workable programmes, which allow people to enter the United States [legally].”