The limits of immigration enforcement
TYSON FOODS, one of the world's largest food processing firms, has a checkered past when it comes to employment practices, specifically the hiring of undocumented workers. A decade ago, the firm faced federal charges that it conspired to smuggle undocumented workers into the country to operate its production lines. A jury acquitted Tyson, but the damage to the company's name was done.
So it was notable this week when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that Tyson had received a federal seal of approval for its hiring practices, which it has improved over the past five or six years. After months of scrutiny by officials, who combed through employment records for virtually every one of Tyson's 100,000-plus workers in this country, ICE and Tyson signed an agreement certifying that the firm and its workforce were on the right side of immigration law.
The event is instructive, not least because Tyson is an outlier; in the past four years, only 115 companies have enlisted in the so-called Image program that Tyson signed up for last week. Most of them are small- to medium-sized ventures; Tyson is one of just two Fortune 500 firms on the list. Although some 250,000 companies have enrolled in E-Verify, a federal program that screens potential new hires for employment eligibility, most firms appear reluctant to have their existing workforces scrutinized, as the Image program requires. And no wonder: An estimated 6 million or 7 million undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. labor force.
To its credit, the Obama administration has more than tripled the number of ICE agents assigned to check hiring practices. The agency has targeted several thousand employers with stepped-up audits of their workforces, arrested hundreds of company officials and levied fines amounting to millions of dollars against companies hiring undocumented workers. Recently, ICE announced that it is beefing up its ability to go after larger companies that may employ undocumented workers. All that is a sensible shift from Bush administration policy, which emphasized raids on factories featuring mass detentions of the workers themselves.
If the current policy turns up the heat on corporations, so much the better; they may in turn increase pressure on Congress to reform America's broken immigration system. As it stands, that system ignores the fact that millions of undocumented workers play an integral role in the economy and that the nation needs a realistic mechanism for admitting sufficient numbers of low-skilled employees to fill jobs that Americans don't want, even with the nation suffering from high unemployment.
The administration has cracked down on employers, tightened border security and stepped up its deportation efforts, particularly against undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Those steps, combined with the recession, have dramatically slowed the inflow of workers here illegally. Still, some 11 million of them remain in America, working in the shadows. As long as Congress refuses to act, the problem will continue to fester.