A Shift on Immigration

New York Times
May 3, 2009

Last week, immigration enforcement policy shifted a little. The administration issued guidelines for Immigration and Customs Enforcement that place a new emphasis on prosecuting employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

That is a good idea, and a break from the Bush administration method — mass raids to net immigrant workers while leaving their bosses alone. The raids were tuned to the theatrics of the poisoned immigration debate, using heavy weapons, dogs and helicopters to spread the illusion that something was getting fixed.

But as policy, they were worse than useless. They netted about 6,000 undocumented immigrants, out of 12 million, and 135 employers or supervisors. They destroyed families, tearing parents and grandparents from children, many of them citizens. The fear they caused went viral in immigrant communities, driving workers further into the arms of abusive employers while bringing us no closer to a working immigration system.

So the new guidelines are smarter than cruel idiocy, but raids are still not a solution. They keep the country trying to arrest, prosecute and deport its way toward a working immigration system. Enforcement alone will never get us there. Workplace raids, no matter how sensibly or tactfully redesigned, will never fix immigration by themselves. Indeed, they make things worse.

Raids do not uphold or reinforce workers’ rights, a non sequitur in the world of off-the-books labor, where employers erode conditions for Americans by hiring workers at deplorable conditions and pay. They do not fix long backlogs in legal immigration, lines that extend years or decades, forcing people who want to follow the rules to make an agonizing choice between intolerable separations from their families or lawbreaking.

They do not protect illegal immigrants from the arbitrary cruelties of the detention and deportation system, in which due process is limited and detainees face unacceptable risk of sickness, injury and death in prison.

And the new enforcement regime, like the old, might lead employers to purge their payrolls of people they merely suspect are here illegally, to avoid the hassle and expense of a raid. When raids are coupled with electronic hiring-verification schemes like E-Verify, which the government has been inching toward, the likelihood of mass firings becomes greater. Without a path to earned legalization, undocumented workers who lose their jobs will have nowhere to go — except to endure ever-lower wages and worse abuse from bottom-feeding employers. The cycle of illegality will not have been broken.

The administration has promised to tackle comprehensive immigration reform this year. President Obama has consistently said the right things, defending a path to assimilation and citizenship for illegal immigrants rather than the futility of mass expulsion.

The decision to adjust the policy on raids seems sensibly motivated. But we agree with immigration and labor experts like Professor Jennifer Gordon of Fordham Law School, who sees the new guidelines as a smarter version of a bad idea. Far better, she says, for the government to redouble enforcement of laws like the minimum wage, the right to organize, and health and safety protections. This would reduce the incentive to hire the undocumented, and raise standards for all workers. It would not end up devastating immigrant families, as raids do. In times like these, that would be a step toward immigration reform that all workers could support.