Despite raids, illegal immigrants here to stay

March 30, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Every once in a while, the door cracks open and we're forced to look at what's been hiding in plain sight all along.

Yesterday was one of those days. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers raided eight companies that had contracted with a temp agency suspected of sending them undocumented workers, and arrested 69 employees. Later in the day, advocacy groups staged a protest, decrying the arrests as inhumane and highlighting the plight of children left behind when immigration officials carted off their mothers.

And now, if past patterns hold true, we'll soon go back to conveniently ignoring the fact that an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the U.S. and, except for these occasional round-ups and endless Washington talk of reform, there really isn't a comprehensive plan on what, if anything, to do about that.

For now, the federal government and states like Maryland are on divergent paths when it comes to illegal immigrants. Even as the feds heighten their efforts to arrest undocumented workers -- seven times the number they arrested five years ago -- some states increasingly are accepting the reality: Illegal immigrants are here, despite these crackdowns most aren't going anywhere, so get used to it.

To see just how divergent those paths are, you only had to pick up yesterday's Sun. The lead news story on the front page was about Gov. Martin O'Malley's support for legislation that would allow some illegal immigrants to pay the less expensive in-state rather than out-of-state tuition at Maryland's public colleges. Meanwhile, the lead story on the Maryland section was about the principal owner of Kawasaki sushi restaurants being sentenced in federal court to five months in prison for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

And then, maybe even as you were pondering the juxtaposition of those two stories, yesterday's raids got under way -- agents descended on a placement firm, Jones Industrial Network, which was under investigation for enlisting illegal immigrants, and eight companies that had contracted with Jones for workers.

Immigration officials took great pains to note that their target is Jones rather than the companies -- such as Baltimore's Under Armour -- that the workers were sent to.

No one from Jones has been arrested in connection with the case, although ICE continues to develop its case against the company.

ICE also took great care to try to avoid the kind of outraged reaction it received in New Bedford, Mass., earlier this month, when it arrested more than 300 workers at a leather goods factory and left some children at least temporarily stranded as their parents were taken away.

In Baltimore, immigration officials noted that state social service employees were on hand to interview detainees to see whether they have children who need to be cared for. They also noted that one worker, who is eight months pregnant, was taken to a hospital as a precautionary measure, and that as many as 20 detainees ultimately may qualify for "humanitarian" release.

Still, advocate groups for immigrants denounced the raids at a rally outside Jones' office in downtown Baltimore, presenting some of the same heart-wrenching examples of left-behind kids that created such an outcry in Massachusetts -- a boy who was left at school, a baby who needed to be breast-fed, children of mothers who were arrested in yesterday's raids, they said.

So now what? Even these stepped-up enforcement efforts are barely making a dent in that 12 million figure. There's the ship-'em-all-back mindset, but unless there's also a plan for who will take all those suddenly vacant and mostly low-wage jobs, that's more bluster than realistic option.

Maybe it's simply time to face the fact that we're addicted to this steady pool of cheap labor, and figure out how to deal with it. Maybe it's a guest worker program -- which a Time magazine poll last year found was supported by nearly 80 percent of those surveyed -- or maybe it's some other process that allows illegals who have demonstrated that they want to work to do so legally.

You'll rarely find President Bush and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy on the same side of an issue, but both recently have reiterated their commitment to immigration reform, which despite the massive rallies and political debates of last year died in Congress without much to show for it.

But whether they can marshal the necessary support for such a hot-potato issue remains to be seen. That crack in the door needs to widen, and not just slammed back shut until the next raid.jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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