The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ICE sweeps are cruel. Without immigration reform, they’re pointless, too.

Friends, coworkers and family wave to one of several buses that are filled with detainees following a U.S. Immigration raid at several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday.
Friends, coworkers and family wave to one of several buses that are filled with detainees following a U.S. Immigration raid at several Mississippi food processing plants on Wednesday. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

THE DEPORTATION sweep Wednesday by hundreds of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at several food processing plants in Mississippi left a trail of tears, business jitters and widespread anxiety in places where undocumented immigrants are so tightly woven into communities that the towns would struggle to exist without them. The raids inflicted predictable suffering — especially among children whose parents were suddenly carted off — to such a degree that just 24 hours afterward, ICE had released some 300 of the 680 migrants it had arrested, including those who had no criminal records.

President Trump, whose own family business has for many years employed migrants who entered the country illegally , pronounced the Mississippi action a “very good deterrent ” to unauthorized immigration. The evidence for that assertion is nil. Still, the sweep provided some useful reminders, not least that the United States cannot deport its way out of a dysfunctional immigration system.

First, the raids underline American agriculture’s deep dependency on undocumented workers, who in 2014 accounted for 17 percent of employees in the sector — and considerably more than that on farms and in many food processing plants. Little wonder that plant managers and local residents in towns targeted by ICE last week worried that the raids would sap their businesses and vitality.

The fact is that relatively few Americans want dirty, dangerous jobs that pay $12 per hour, while requiring some employees to report to work at 3 a.m. One study commissioned by the dairy industry suggested 3,500 dairy farms would close if half the country’s foreign-born workers were deported; another survey, from North Carolina, showed that in 2011, a minuscule number of the state’s nearly half-million jobless workers applied for 6,500 available farm jobs, and most of those who were hired couldn’t hack the work; most of the jobs were then filled by Mexicans.

Second, any large-scale enforcement action will inevitably result in families being broken apart — including those whose children are U.S. citizens. In 2017, two-thirds of unauthorized adult migrants had lived in the United States for more than a decade, according to the Pew Research Center; their median duration of residence was 15 years. Officials may not like the optics of crying toddlers and preteens whose parents have been taken away, but they shouldn’t be surprised.

Third, businesses like the ones in Mississippi that employ undocumented workers are subject to federal prosecution. But it was Republican leaders in the House of Representatives last year, on Mr. Trump’s watch, who blocked legislation that would have required private employers to use E-Verify, a data system used to check whether employees are legally present in the country. Farm groups, including those who represent major employers in Republican districts in California and elsewhere, are dead set against requiring E-Verify, knowing it would produce severe labor shortages.

ICE officials and federal prosecutors are right that deportation sweeps are within their purview as lawful enforcement actions. The problem is that the law is so blatantly misaligned with economic, social and political realities that it is magical thinking to believe that enforcement alone, in the absence of sweeping reform of existing laws, can make a dent in the nation’s population of 10.5 million undocumented immigrants.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Donald Trump is the immigration problem he rails against

Marc A. Thiessen: Democrats say no one is above the law — except on immigration

Alejandro Chavez: The Cesar Chavez name is more than a prop

Paul Waldman: Trump plays dumb about his long history with undocumented workers

Paul Waldman: Trump’s ultimate immigration failure