Immigration Audits and the Politics of Appearance

When Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano spoke on administration immigration policy before the liberal think tank Center for American Progress on November 13, 2009, she touted the administration's commitment to "serious and effective enforcement."

She declared "that the security of the Southwest border has been transformed from where it was in 2007." She touted the administration's dedication of "unprecedented resources to the Mexican border in terms of manpower, technology and infrastructure – and it's made a real difference." She touted the administration's Southwest Border Initiative announced in March 2009, "that has increased the resources the government is dedicating to combating drug cartels, and the smuggled cash and illegal weapons they thrive on." (Emphasis added.)

"Transformed," "unprecedented resources," and "increased the resources" are all comparative words and phrases without the metrics and evaluation that would allow anyone to judge the nature and amount of actual progress. More may well be better than little or none, but it is not necessarily enough for its intended purposes.

In the same speech Napolitano bragged, "we've transformed worksite enforcement to truly address the demand side of illegal immigration. We are auditing the books of thousands of employers suspected of relying on illegal labor to achieve an unfair advantage in the marketplace." (Emphasis added.)

Changed, yes. Transformed? No.

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It may well turn out to be the case the audits are a better use of resources that raids to bring about compliance with immigration laws, but the numbers here are daunting.

In July of 2009, the federal government announced it was auditing 650 businesses "around the country." That article further notes that "In April [2009], the federal government issued new guidelines to immigration agents instructing them to focus on employers who hire illegal immigrants rather than just to arrest workers." In November of that year the Wall Street Journal reported that "About 1,000 U.S. employers will be audited for immigration violations as the federal government escalates pressure on business owners to resist hiring illegal immigrants."

The WSJ report noted that of the 651 audits conducted earlier in the year, half were closed with warnings or findings of compliance, and officials issued notices for 61 fines. Two hundred and sixty seven cases were still open and pending. The New York Times puts the number of audits at 2,900 companies.

Audits are long, costly, and complex procedures and may operate primarily as a deterrent if there are enough of them and the costs for non-compliance outweigh the lower labor costs accrued over time. How many businesses are there in the United States that employ workers? Well, it turns out that, according to government statistics, there were 27.5 million small businesses in the United States in 2009. Small business accounted for 65 percent (or 9.8 million) of the 15 million net new jobs created between 1993 and 2009.

Moreover, about 552,000 new small business opened in 2009 and more than 660,000 closed their doors. The American economy is a dynamic one and nowhere is this made clear then in new business-creation efforts.

So the government audited approximately 2,900 of 27.5 million small businesses or .00001. At that rate, it will take the government 9,483 years to audit all the small business listed in the United States.

Moreover, the government audits are "using investigative leads to target companies that have a connection to'critical infrastructure,' such as airports and utilities."

This lends a nice national security patina to the administration's efforts, but many undocumented workers are to be found in the construction, hotel, landscaping, and restaurant industries, to name a few.

Obviously, the government does not have to audit every small business in order for audits to have an effect, but the numbers alone suggest that Secretary Napolitano's assertion that "we've transformed worksite enforcement" (emphasis added) is more hyperbole than fact.

In the area of immigration policy the Obama administration has proven to be particularly in need of close attention to the relationship of its rhetoric to its behavior.