Analysts: Crackdown Won't Halt Immigration

By Michael A. Fletcher and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 18, 2005

The bill passed by the House late Friday to step up border enforcement and crack down on the millions of undocumented workers in the country would be doomed to failure if enacted because it does not acknowledge the inexorable economic forces that drive illegal immigration, according to many analysts.

"Enforcement alone will not do it," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "There is a certain emperor-has-no-clothes aspect to these enforcement-only bills. The only way they can work would be if you totally militarize the border. And even then, people would find some other way to come in."

The view that more than tougher enforcement is needed has been echoed by President Bush, who endorsed the House measure but also has said that a guest worker program that would create a legal channel for a significant number of unskilled workers to come into the country is a crucial element in any effort to control illegal immigration.

"It is a significant step forward," Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, said of the House bill. "But the Senate has said that it plans to move next year on a comprehensive immigration measure."

The bill, passed by the House 239 to 182, would significantly strengthen enforcement by building sections of double walls along more than a third of the 2,000-mile southern border and incorporating more high-tech tools, including sensors, radar, satellites and unmanned drones, to enhance patrols.

The bill also would discourage the hiring of illegal workers by intensifying enforcement against employers, who would have to confirm the authenticity of employees' Social Security numbers against a national database or face fines of as much as $25,000 per violation. In addition, the bill would require that undocumented immigrants apprehended in the United States be held in detention facilities until they are deported. Currently, a severe shortage of detention space forces authorities to release many non-Mexican detainees after giving them summonses to return for deportation hearings, which most ignore. Illegal Mexican immigrants are deported.

The Senate is expected to act on its own immigration bill early next year. That measure is widely expected to include enhanced enforcement measures and a guest worker program.

Congress has passed laws to crack down on illegal immigration in the past -- most recently in 1996 -- but those efforts have met with little success, especially when it comes to holding employers accountable. In 1999, the government issued 417 notices of intent to fine employers for hiring undocumented workers. Last year, that number dropped to three, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. Even when employers were caught hiring undocumented workers, the penalties typically have been minor, the GAO found.

"In many ways, we have kind of cut back on enforcement," said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates a sharp decrease in immigration of all kinds. "It's not [like] the weather. Many of these things are choices that the government makes."

Federal officials say several factors account for the lack of enforcement, including widespread use of counterfeit documents by illegal immigrants and problems establishing a reliable database that would allow employers to more easily detect cheaters. Also, there has been an increased focus on preventing terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Gregory Siskind, an immigration lawyer in Memphis, said that the government's enforcement efforts are constrained by the reality that illegal immigrants are central to the nation's economy. While the country absorbs about 500,000 illegal immigrant workers a year -- many of them entering from Mexico -- the federal government grants only 5,000 permanent visas for low-skill workers annually.

"There is no legal means for millions of people working here in restaurants or on construction sites to come into the country," Siskind said. "Personally, I think a lot of what we have seen on this issue is for show. I think there is a recognition that illegal immigrants are a vital part of the workforce. They want to enforce it in a way that sounds good for commercials, but not so much that you would cause economic changes."

In many parts of the country, particularly in the Southwest, there is palpable anger about what many people see as unchecked illegal immigration, which they complain overwhelms schools and hospitals and often changes the character of their communities. Arizona voters passed a measure last year that cut off public services to illegal immigrants. A similar initiative is being promoted in Colorado, while activists in California are working to put a ballot initiative before voters to establish a state-funded border patrol.

Polls find that three out of four Americans believe the country is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants out. "The American public has lost confidence with Congress on this issue," said Joseph Chamie, director of research for the Center for Migration Studies. "But at the same time, the fact is that many businesses benefit from this labor flow, as do many average Americans who hire nannies, lawn people, or enjoy restaurants that might hire undocumented workers."

While the federal government has more than doubled the number of Border Patrol agents to more than 10,000 and tripled its border enforcement budget to more than $6 billion over the past decade, the number of illegal immigrants in the country has more than doubled in that period to an estimated 11 million.

"These [enforcement] efforts operating alone are doomed to fail," said Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But they are too attractive in a political sense and too important symbolically to resist."

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