As Congress struggles with the politics of dealing with a flood of illegal immigrant workers, relatively little attention is being paid to the issue at the heart of the problem: the fact that they are lured here by American businesses offering millions of jobs.
It is against the law to hire an unauthorized immigrant worker, but neither the employers nor the federal government has been paying much attention to that fact.
In the fiscal year that ended in September 2004, the government issued just three notices of intent to fine employers for hiring unauthorized workers - down from 417 in fiscal 1999. Only 445 illegal workers were arrested at work during the 2003 fiscal year.
An estimated 7 million illegal immigrants work in this country - one in 20 members of the American work force.
Business groups and employers contend they can't find enough American workers to fill low-skilled jobs that immigrants readily want in industries such as construction, landscaping and food services. But critics say that as long as low-wage jobs are plentiful and employers go unpunished for hiring illegal immigrants, undocumented workers will continue to come.
Some experts even question the assertion that the jobs taken by the immigrants are mostly marginal. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center put the average family income of illegal immigrants in the United States at $27,400, higher than the official poverty level.
Hiring illegal workers should be difficult, but anti-immigration advocates say there is little incentive not to do so.
A report released in August by the Government Accountability Office found that "worksite enforcement has been a relatively low priority" for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Even with a strengthened employment verification process, a credible worksite enforcement program is needed because no verification process is foolproof and not all employers may want to comply with the law," the report concluded.
Immigrant-rights advocates say unauthorized workers have gotten the brunt of the blame as American businesses and consumers take advantage of their work. Often, illegal immigrants face harsh working conditions at the hands of unscrupulous employers, yet they are less likely to complain about abuses.
"They're trying to play by the rules," said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization in Washington. "They want to contribute. Businesses need them."
Unauthorized workers make up 12 percent to 13 percent of the labor force in industries such as farming, construction and food services, according to the Pew Center study.
Over the past two decades, foreign-born workers have become a more integral part of the economy as immigrants have become a larger share of the U.S. population. The growth has been fueled in part by illegal visitors.
Businesses say they're not looking to hire unauthorized workers. The problem, they say, is that they can't find American workers willing to fill low-wage jobs.
"No one wants to have illegal workers," said Valerie Connelly, director of government relations at the Maryland Farm Bureau.
Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, said there would be more demand and interest in such jobs if wages were better.
"There are not jobs that Americans won't do if the price is right," said Bernstein, who supports an increase in the federal minimum wage. "So, what's really being said is, if you degrade the quality of the job [so] that only a pretty desperate person would take it, then, by definition, the person who takes it is someone who desperately needs the work."
Employers say it's difficult to turn illegal immigrants away. Under the law, employers check two forms of government-issued identification to verify a worker's legal status.
But the prevalence of authentic-looking fake documents and identity fraud has made it difficult for employers to weed out unauthorized migrants and harder for immigration officials to prove that some employers knowingly broke the law, the GAO report found.
"The reason you see so few citations is that the employer is doing everything right," said John Gay, a senior vice president of government affairs and public policy at the National Restaurant Association. "They're getting documentation presented to them by the workers, but they turn out to be false."
The fact that more than two dozen documents are acceptable for proving work eligibility has undermined the verification process, the report noted.
Critics say neither the government nor the employers are trying as hard as they should to weed out illegal immigrant workers. The small numbers of arrests, fines and prosecutions are evidence of lack of interest in dealing with illegal immigrants where they work, they note.