By TAMAR JACOBY
SPECIAL TO THE LOS ANGELES TIMES
Our immigration system is out of control. We can't hold the line at the border. We can't prevent the hiring of unauthorized workers. Despite our tough rhetoric, an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants feed a vast underground economy that makes a mockery of the rule of law.
No wonder the public is hungry for tougher enforcement -- and no wonder politicians from House Republican leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., are responding with promises to crack down.
Enhanced enforcement of immigration law is a key element of the legislation introduced in May by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. And it will surely be part of the more conservative Senate bill expected this month from Republicans John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
But just because everyone agrees more enforcement is necessary doesn't mean we are on the verge of a solution. In fact, this only sets up a new battle between people who believe we can solve the immigration problem by appropriating money for enforcement only and those who see enforcement as part of a broader reform package.
It's not that we don't know how to enforce the law. We do. But by itself, enforcement doesn't work. Consider our success on the border in Southern California. Over the last decade, we tripled the manpower and quintupled the budget for policing what used to be the four busiest crossing points in California and Texas. And in each case, we managed to dramatically reduce the number of migrants apprehended in each sector.
The only catch: We didn't actually stop the flow. We just diverted it to other, less populated stretches of frontier -- such as Arizona and New Mexico -- where it will take much more personnel and technology to wrest control.
But the problem goes deeper than that. The truth is that beneath the bluster we're ambivalent about enforcing immigration law because we know that if we were to succeed, it could be disastrous for U.S. businesses and the American workers who depend on them.
Controling the border
Congress and most of the public grasped long ago that for enforcement to work, we need to take control not just on the border but also in the workplace. That's why the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act made it illegal for businesses to hire unauthorized workers. Efforts to enforce this provision culminated in 1998 in an initiative called Operation Vanguard, which targeted meatpacking plants in Nebraska -- a sector known to be highly dependent on illegal labor. Immigration agents compared company records with Social Security databases, then interrogated 4,500 suspect employees.
Large numbers of workers fled the plants, and the initiative seemed on the brink of success -- until the governor and several members of the Nebraska congressional delegation complained to immigration officials. Their complaint: Not only did the crackdown threaten to close the Nebraska meatpacking industry, one of the largest employers in the state, it also imperiled local agriculture by depressing prices for hogs and cattle.
The politicians were responding to protests from employers and from the communities that depended on them. Within months, immigration authorities had all but suspended Operation Vanguard.
It isn't hard to see the moral of the story. Yes, we need better enforcement on the border (particularly in remote, rural areas such as southern Arizona). Yes, it's essential that we focus on the workplace, checking employees against Social Security records at the moment of hiring (electronically, with a system something like credit card verification). And yes, we need penalties stiff enough to deter future offenders.
But even more important, we need to recognize that our laws are out of sync with the country's labor needs -- and that it doesn't pay to try to enforce unrealistic laws. We need immigration quotas -- or a guest worker program -- generous enough to supply American employers with the employees they need to grow their businesses.
In the wake of 9/11, it goes without saying: We need to find a way to enforce our immigration laws. But tempting as it is to talk tough and make a show of throwing money at the problem, we can't get the control we need just by cracking down -- and any politician who promises we can isn't serious about solving the problem.
X Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.