updated 4/30/2009 4:23:00 PM ET 2009-04-30T20:23:00

The Obama administration is pursuing employers who knowingly hire and exploit illegal workers, a policy not significantly different from the Bush administration’s approach.

The guidelines, sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on Thursday, call for imposing fines and pressing criminal charges against employers who break the law.

The priority is to go after employers, but the policy says agents will continue to arrest illegal workers as long as local U.S. attorneys commit to prosecuting cases against their employers.

The Obama administration stresses that humanitarian guidelines will be followed in more cases than under President George W. Bush.

As a candidate, Barack Obama promised an immigration policy that would shift emphasis away from workplace raids and place greater focus on employers who hire illegal immigrants and overall immigration reform. Some immigration advocates were hopeful Obama would sign an executive order that would freeze immigration raids, but that hasn’t happened.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said the agency will focus on “renewing a priority on employers who are making money off of these illegal immigrants and giving them jobs that should be going to American workers, as opposed to just counting numbers.”

In 2008, ICE brought criminal charges against 135 employers and 968 workers. ICE is part of Napolitano’s department.

In an interview with The Associated Press this month, Napolitano said building cases against employers could include auditing documents employees fill out when they join a company, having illegal workers go undercover, and talking to people who regularly interact with the employers.

“What I want to do is deter more employers from intentionally and knowingly hiring illegal workers,” Napolitano said.

Worksite enforcement operations take up only a small percentage of ICE’s nearly $6 billion annual budget. The agency’s immigration raids have become politically and emotionally charged, as federal agents in SWAT-like gear have swept into businesses and rounded up hundreds of illegal workers.

Ten years ago, the Clinton administration made changes to its workplace enforcement policies, deciding to concentrate on criminal activities related to illegal immigration. At the time, the now-dissolved Immigration and Naturalization Service targeted employers who worked with human traffickers and other criminal enterprises to smuggle workers across international borders. The Clinton-era strategy also called for auditing employers instead of raiding the businesses.

But these enforcement cases were inconsistent and the fines became to the employers just a cost of doing business and therefore ineffective, said Mark Reed, a former INS regional director.

Enforcement priorities shifted in once again in 1999 when immigration agents targeted Nebraska meatpacking plants as part of Operation Vanguard, meant to be an example to other employers. Immigration agents had checked thousands of employment forms and identified hundreds of workers they thought might be in the country illegally.

That operation, however, became more notable for the economic disruption it caused than the arrests. Nebraska’s political leaders demanded that the government to back off, complaining that production had fallen sharply as the plants’ workers dwindled.

“Vanguard was so successful that it was shut down,” Reed recalled.

Early in the Bush administration, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, worksite enforcement took a back seat to terrorism. Over the past eight years, Bush administration officials said they were still pursuing those who knowingly hired illegal workers.

When Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul in 2007, immigration officials began conducting more organized raids and developing criminal cases against the employers.

Building cases against employers take time, said Julie Myers, assistant secretary of ICE during the latter part of the administration. Also, immigration officials faced the same question: “What do you do with the employees?”

When the prosecution is complete, “Will those illegal immigrants be made to go home or not,” asked Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

“The strategy of appearing tough on enforcement but not angering the open borders groups centers on very high profile arrests of egregious employers,” he said. “They’re going to be presented with ongoing political challenges in walking this tightrope.”

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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