As reported by the Wall Street Journal. 

The Obama administration announced a crackdown [last week] on hundreds of companies suspected of employing illegal immigrants, signaling a shift in strategy: going after employers instead of workers.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, said that it had begun an audit of 652 U.S. companies to verify whether their employees were eligible to work. Violations could lead to fines, as well as civil and criminal charges.

It wasn't clear what steps the government would pursue if it verified that an employer had hired illegal workers, or how severe penalties might be.

The announcement came a few months after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she wanted to focus immigration enforcement on egregious cases of employers who hire undocumented workers, and sometimes even assist in falsifying their paperwork to avoid detection.

During the Bush administration, enforcement activity was characterized by high-profile raids in which hundreds of illegal immigrants were rounded up.

A series of raids at meatpacking plants belonging to JBS Swift & Co. across six states in December 2006 resulted in 1,200 workers being detained. The Bush policy led to large numbers of deportations.

The new policy comes as President Barack Obama is attempting to ramp up support for an overhaul of immigration legislation that would set millions of illegal immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship.

Mr. Obama is seeking to put a spotlight on enforcement, according to several people involved in the new strategy, in order to counteract critics who charge he is preparing to naturalize large numbers of foreign workers at a time when unemployment among American citizens is climbing. Some 12 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S.

While the new enforcement approach isn't set up to trigger immediate deportations, it is still likely to unsettle immigrant communities.

"The net effect for workers is nearly the same: They lose their economic lifeline. They may not be deported but they may have to relocate," said Craig J. Regelbrugge, the co-chair of Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, an association of agricultural producers.

Under the new policy, ICE began notifying businesses that it planned to inspect their hiring records to see whether employees have proper employee documentation. Many of the companies were located in New York and California, according to an ICE official.

[Last week], American Apparel Inc., a Los Angeles clothing manufacturer and retailer, said ICE gave notice that 1,600 of its 5,600 factory employees might be working illegally. It couldn't verify the status of 200 others.

However, in what might be an indication of a more collaborative approach under the new policy, American Apparel said ICE requested that the company interview the employees and investigate whether or not they are in U.S. legally.

An ICE official said even if the government later verified that some employees were illegal, it wouldn't necessarily follow up with a raid. "We're changing our approach," the official said.

The government's audit of the apparel company dates back to January 2008, and it's unclear how many of the workers under suspicion were still employed.

American Apparel — founded and run by a Canadian emigrant to the U.S., Dov Charney — has been one of the most outspoken proponents of changing U.S. immigration laws. Many of its stores post signs and sell T-shirts that read "Legalize L.A.," a reference to the city's many undocumented workers.

Mr. Charney said in a statement Wednesday that the company hoped the employees "are able to confirm their work authorization so that they may continue to work at American Apparel."

It remains to be seen how much pressure the new policy could put on employers.

The government now plans to comb through the records at the companies it has notified. "Inspections are one of the most powerful tools the federal government has to enforce employment and immigration laws," ICE said in a statement.