SEATTLE - Immigration agents this week conducted their first work-site raid since President Barack Obama took office, but it was news to their boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who on Wednesday ordered a review of the action.
Workplace raids involving the arrests of hundreds of illegal immigrants at a time became almost routine in the last years of the Bush administration, but Napolitano's response to Tuesday's raid at a Bellingham, Wash., manufacturing plant highlighted the Obama administration's much different approach to a hot-button issue.
Napolitano told lawmakers during a hearing in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday that she did not know about the raid before it happened and was briefed on it early Wednesday morning. She has asked U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which arrested 28 illegal immigrants in the raid, for answers.
"I want to get to the bottom of this as well," she said. She said work-site enforcement needs to be focused on the employers.
The raid at the Yamato Engine Specialists was the first work-site action ICE has taken since Obama took office, said Sean Smith, a spokesman at Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
In a statement, an ICE official said the agency conducted the raid after information from two "gang members" led agents to start an investigation at the company.
"Follow-up investigation uncovered a potentially large number of illegally employed workers. ICE conducted the operation in order to identify and, if appropriate, apprehend any unauthorized workers and to further determine potential criminal activity," ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said in an e-mail from Washington, D.C.
Obama, who appointed Napolitano, has signaled a shift in immigration policy that would rely less on work-site enforcement, focusing instead on employers who hire illegal immigrants and overall immigration reform.
ICE agents rounded up 25 men and three women at the engine shop, all Mexicans except for a Honduran, a Salvadoran and a Guatemalan. Except for three people freed on humanitarian grounds, those arrested are at a detention center in Tacoma, awaiting deportation proceedings.
In a statement Tuesday, ICE officials said many of the people obtained the jobs using fake Social Security numbers and other counterfeit documents.
Shirin Dhanani Makalai, whose family owns the business, said the raid came after months of cooperating with ICE on an audit, which included providing employee rosters to federal authorities. She said the business does not advocate hiring illegal immigrants.
"We try to stay within the guidelines, within the law," Makalai said Tuesday.
Makalai added that the company did not knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and that employers have no clear way of checking an employee's legal status.
Marissa Graciosa of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, said it was deeply disappointing that ICE has executed a raid since Obama took office. She called the raids destructive and ineffective.
"We urge President Obama to deliver on his promise of change by stopping the raids, and signing just and humane immigration reform into law," Graciosa said.
Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter enforcement of immigration laws, said Napolitano's call to review the raid goes along with an expectation that Obama will slash work-site raids. Camarota said such raids should be part of an overall immigration policy.
"I think that the expectation is that (Obama) will do a whole lot less enforcement, period," Camarota said.