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Thinking Out Loud | IMMIGRATION

Who's the Boss?

June 03, 2005

Unless you're angling for a Cabinet position in Washington or a seat on the Supreme Court, there isn't much pretense anymore that you can run into trouble for hiring an illegal immigrant. It's a state of affairs highly corrosive to the rule of law, and one reason no one seems in any hurry to overhaul immigration laws.

The country should be focused on figuring out the realistic number of legal immigrants it needs, but why bother when entire industries can rely on a limitless pool of cheap illegal labor?

The degree of impunity enjoyed by those who hire illegal immigrants is astonishing. As Anna Gorman reported recently in The Times, "From 1993 to 2003, the number of arrests at work sites nationwide went from 7,630 to 445. The number of fines dropped from 944 in 1993 to 124 in 2003."

Washington should be beefing up, rather than relaxing, workplace enforcement. Employer sanctions were at the heart of the landmark immigration law of 1986, when amnesty was accompanied by a commitment to go after those who hire the undocumented. Perhaps it isn't shocking that this commitment wasn't upheld -- illegal immigrants may not be a powerful political constituency, but employers are.

A notorious case of onion-pickers in Vidalia, Ga., illustrates the point. When in 1998 immigration agents conducted a raid at the height of the harvest, growers were outraged and called their representatives in Congress and asked them to restrain the federal agents.

The Feds did back off, and that sums up what has happened nationwide. The result is a harvest of hypocrisy and illegality.

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