A Misguided Crackdown

Friday, August 15, 2008

CONGRESS'S FAILURE to enact a workable immigration system last year prompted the Bush administration to redouble its previously lethargic efforts at enforcing existing immigration laws. The get-tough campaign -- more workplace raids and arrests along the Mexican border, plus a smattering of criminal cases against employers -- has two goals. One is to show a doubting public that the feds mean business. The other is to make things so miserable for businesses that corporate lobbyists join in the fight for meaningful immigration reform.

The results of this enforcement-only strategy have meant that undocumented workers are suffering the brunt of the misery even as businesses continue to employ millions of them. A new study by the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration, suggests this strategy has helped prompt hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers to leave the country; the economic slowdown has added to the pressure by depriving them of jobs. Still, the administration's strategy of emphasizing punishment rather than prevention underscores the need for a more durable solution.

Seen as raw data, the numbers of illegal workers taken into custody in raids at meatpacking plants and other workplaces are striking. Agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement made some 5,000 workplace arrests last year, 10 times as many as in 2002. Some recent sweeps have been dramatic, including a raid in May on Agriprocessors, a huge meatpacking plant in Iowa where 390 undocumented workers were arrested; many of them were charged with document fraud and received prison terms before their likely deportations.

But compare the arrests -- as well as 90-odd criminal cases brought against various employers -- against the ongoing reality of some 8 million undocumented workers, and the feds' efforts look modest. No doubt, some employers have felt the heat (partly from tougher state laws) and are checking prospective workers' documents more closely. Hiring more immigration agents has certainly increased the peril, and the cost, of sneaking across the southern border.

But the basic legal and economic dynamics that created the nation's dysfunctional immigration system remain largely unchanged. Despite the economic dip, there is still demand for unskilled labor that native-born Americans cannot supply. That demand will perk up when the economy does. The number of visas available for unskilled workers -- 66,000 per year -- is laughably inadequate. Many thousands of workers continue to enter the country illegally or enter legally and then overstay their visas. A practical approach would acknowledge both the demand for unskilled labor and the fact that 5 percent of the American workforce consists of undocumented workers. It would raise the quota of temporary employment visas, establish a better system for employers to verify the legal status of job applicants and offer undocumented workers a way to register themselves and eventually earn citizenship. Critics will howl about an amnesty, but realists will see it is the way to address the reality of immigration and labor in a globalized marketplace.

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