Back where we started on illegal immigration

October 15, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- During the fractious, months-long immigration debate, Big Business hid in the corridors of Congress or ducked behind closed doors, afraid to say in public what it whispered in private: We need illegal workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies didn't want to be blasted by conservatives seeking harsh measures against undocumented immigrants.

The dirty little secret is this: Several important sectors of the economy depend heavily on low-wage workers, many of whom are in the United States illegally. And employers in those sectors, which include agriculture, hospitality and construction, don't really check carefully to learn whether their workers have proper documents. They know that if they insist on hiring only legal workers, they won't be able to get crops harvested or houses built or motel rooms cleaned.

Now, a White House crackdown on illegal immigrants has forced Big Business out into the open. Joined by the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union, a coalition of business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and small-business associations, went to court to stop the Bush administration from implementing an initiative designed to ferret out undocumented laborers and punish employers who use them. Last week, a federal judge issued an injunction against the crackdown, warning that it could also harm law-abiding workers and employers.

So we're right back where we started: Employers can continue to hire and exploit illegal workers, paying them poverty-level wages while ignoring health and safety regulations. And those workers still have little hope of becoming citizens.

This year, a pragmatic congressional compromise on illegal immigration dissolved in a miasma of political cowardice, jingoism and lackluster presidential leadership. A bipartisan group of senators worked for months on a plan that would increase spending on border protection, penalize employers who hire illegally, and provide a winding route to citizenship for illegal immigrants who worked hard, learned English and paid fines. But after a backlash from the right-wing fringe, some of those same senators backed away from the deal.

Perhaps the compromise legislation could have been salvaged if Big Business had been willing to mount a highly visible public campaign in support of it. If poultry processing giants and titans of agriculture had appeared in TV ads supporting immigration and gone on talk shows to confront the likes of CNN's Lou Dobbs, the bill might have passed. It was in their interests to do so, since it would have allowed many undocumented laborers to keep their jobs.

But Big Business, playing the percentages, declined to step up. When you're making billions off of illegal immigration, what's to reform?

After the immigration bill failed, President Bush promised stronger measures to patrol the borders and punish employers who hire illegally. In August, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced a new initiative to send letters warning employers about any worker whose Social Security number didn't match the agency's records. The employer would have 90 days either to verify the worker's Social Security number or fire him. Employers flouting the law could face stiff fines.

But U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer of San Francisco noted that Social Security's records are full of errors and could unfairly target legal workers. He also blasted the administration for failing to conduct a survey of the costs of the new rule to small businesses.

If the records of the Baltimore-based Social Security Administration are that badly flawed, they need to be fixed - in a hurry. Not only has poor record-keeping hampered efforts to curb illegal workers, but it will also lead to false accounting. Those records remain the best way to spot undocumented laborers.

And penalizing illegal employers remains the best way to curb illegal immigration. Mexicans, Guatemalans and Koreans come to this country for jobs. If they learn those jobs aren't available, they'll stop coming.

The worst thing to do is retain the status quo: exploiting illegal workers for wretched pay while refusing to give them a path to citizenship. That's un-American.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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