Watching workplaces

March 30, 2005

THE RECORD $11 million civil fine Wal-Mart Stores Inc. recently agreed to pay to settle charges of using undocumented immigrant workers in violation of federal immigration law is proof that work-site investigations by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are effective. Yet investigations of companies employing illegal immigrants have decreased in recent years even as members of Congress have called for stricter immigration controls.

From 1997 to 2003, completed work-site investigations fell from 7,537 to 2,194, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The amount of fines collected dropped to $118,668 last year from $3.69 million in 1999.

The drop is attributed to a shift in priorities after the 9/11 attacks. Attention turned to rooting out illegal immigrants working at potential terrorist targets: nuclear facilitates, oil refineries, defense plants, shipyards, airports and seaports. Indeed, investigations at these locations have netted arrests of baggage screeners, janitors, aircraft repairmen, technicians and others who used fake documents to obtain jobs.

But the decreased focus on nonsensitive work sites that employ, and attract, significantly more illegal immigrants harms long-term immigration control efforts. Lawbreaking employers and their illegal employees now know they have little to fear.

So why has Congress been largely silent on this issue while some of its members have fueled the public din over illegal immigration? Demonizing undocumented immigrants while giving a pass to employers who hire them is hypocritical.

The debate about immigration needs reframing. As long as employers continue to hire undocumented workers, immigrants desperate for work will continue trying to get here. Many of these companies are genuinely unable to find American workers willing to fill job openings. One major beef processor even paid recruiters to find workers in Mexico.

The administration's proposed fiscal 2006 budget for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, an agency within the DHS, is $6.7 billion, nearly 4.8 percent more than last year and one of the largest increases in the government. Meanwhile, the budget for all immigration-related investigations, including work-site investigations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, another DHS agency, is just $179 million.

It is contradictory to make it more difficult and dangerous for migrants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border while going easy on the American companies that hire them and, in many cases, exploit and abuse them. Congress should call for more-aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace and increase funding for investigations. This would reduce the level of illegal hiring, improve working conditions for all workers, and reinforce the notion that this country is serious about enforcing the law for employees and employers alike.

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