Immigration Policy: Cracking Down or Cracking Up?

August 1st, 2006 by

Our colleague Peter Rousmaniere continues to track the rocky road to a new immigration policy in his invaluable working immigrants blog. He brings our attention to the new federal emphasis on enforcement. The administration is cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants, not just slapping wrists as in the past, but slapping on handcuffs as well.
Julia Preston writes in the New York Times (registration required) that immigration agents went after the Garcia Labor Company, a temporary worker contractor that provides low-wage laborers to businesses from Pennsylvania to Texas. The feds brought a 40-count indictment, part of a new strategy by immigration officials to clamp down on employers of illegal immigrant laborers.
Maximino Garcia, the president of the company, was charged with aiding illegal immigrants and money laundering. If convicted, Mr. Garcia, who pleaded not guilty, could serve 20 years in jail and forfeit his headquarters building and $12 million.
Fear and Loathing Among Immigrants
The new policy is beginning to create an environment of fear in Ohio’s immigrant communities.
“It’s a very uneasy feeling,” said Sister Teresa Ann Wolf, a Roman Catholic nun who works with immigrant workers in Canton, Ohio. “People are afraid to leave the house to go to the store. They are afraid to come to church.”
While the old immigration agency brought just 25 criminal charges against employers in 2002, this year Immigration and Customs Enforcement has already made 445 criminal arrests of employers. Some 2,700 immigrant workers were caught up in those operations, and most were deported.
Hiring illegal immigrants “has been a low-risk, high-reward enterprise,” said Brian M. Moskowitz, the agency’s special agent in charge for Ohio and Michigan. “We want to send the message that your cost of business just went up because you risk your livelihood, your corporate reputation and your personal freedom.” They may well send a message, but are they really proposing a crack down that will encompasses literally millions of people?
The President’s Strategy
President Bush is pushing for enforcement in order to pre-empt his party’s right wing. He probably still has hopes of developing a more balanced approach, combining a new registration and certification process for illegal immigrants with more robust enforcement. At the moment, however, the policy is dramatically out of balance, emphasizing pure enforcement without offering immigrants any new paths to legitimacy. As a result, more and more immigrant labor will be driven underground. This strategy puts undocumented workers at high risk. Safety standards, already compromised among this population, will erode even further. Wages and benefits will drop and exploitation will increase.
It is neither feasible nor desirable to totally eliminate undocumented workers. Throwing out a few thousand people and locking up a few employers are not going to solve any problems. The big crack down is the symptom of failure: we need these marginalized workers and we need to figure out how to legitimize their role in our economy. For the moment at least, we lack both the will and the compassion to develop a lasting solution.