Earth to WSJ: Clueless on Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on January 28, 2004

National Review Online, January 28, 2004

Now, I like the Wall Street Journal. But its editorials on immigration always have a whiff of the Soviet about them. Like an apparatchik blaming the collapse of the USSR's agriculture on 75 straight years of bad weather, the Journal's writing on immigration has no connection to reality. Tuesday's lead editorial claims that the United States has tried in vain for two decades to enforce the immigration law, and now it's time to try something new (namely, the president's guestworker/amnesty proposal). The piece is laced with the usual libertarian contempt for conservatives, with such leftist smears as "extreme," "restrictionist right," and "nativist wing of the GOP," and even refers to "undocumented," rather than illegal, aliens.

But it's the basic factual claim of the piece that's so absurd. The new party line is that open borders aren't just desirable (a la the Journal's perennial call for a constitutional amendment abolishing America's borders) - they're inevitable. Another member of the open-borders apparat, Tamar Jacoby, had a recent piece in The New Republic (here, but you have to pay for it) subtitled "Why we can't stop illegal immigration." In the Journal's words, "if a policy keeps failing for nearly two decades maybe some new thinking is in order."

Actually, I agree. The problem is that the "new thinking" we need is a commitment to enforce the law. Over the past 20 years, we have done almost nothing to control immigration except beef up the Border Patrol. And while that's a worthwhile goal in itself, any border agent will tell you that his job is only one part of any effort to enforce sovereign borders.

The Journal claims that the ban on hiring illegals, passed in 1986, has been tried and failed. Again, this is false. Enforcement of this measure, intended to turn off the magnet attracting illegals in the first place, was spotty at first and is now virtually nonexistent. Even when the law was passed, Congress pulled its punch by not requiring the development of a mechanism for employers to verify the legal status of new hires, forcing the system to fall back on a blizzard of easily forged paper documents.

And even under this flawed system, the INS was publicly slapped down when it did try to enforce the law. When the agency conducted raids during Georgia's Vidalia onion harvest in 1998, thousands of illegal aliens - knowingly hired by the farmers - abandoned the fields to avoid arrest. By the end of the week, both of the state's senators and three congressmen - Republicans and Democrats - had sent an outraged letter to Washington complaining that the INS "does not understand the needs of America's farmers," and that was the end of that.

So, the INS tried out a "kinder, gentler" means of enforcing the law, which fared no better. Rather than conduct raids on individual employers, Operation Vanguard in 1998-99 sought to identify illegal workers at all meatpacking plants in Nebraska through audits of personnel records. The INS then asked to interview those employees who appeared to be unauthorized - and the illegals ran off. The procedure was remarkably successful, and was meant to be repeated every two or three months until the plants were weaned from their dependence on illegal labor.

Local law-enforcement officials were very pleased with the results, but employers and politicians vociferously criticized the very idea of enforcing the immigration law. Gov. Mike Johanns organized a task force to oppose the operation; the meat packers and the ranchers hired former Gov. Ben Nelson to lobby on their behalf; and, in Washington, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) (coauthor, with Tom Daschle, of the newest amnesty bill, S.2010) made it his mission in life to pressure the Justice Department to stop. They succeeded, the operation was ended, and the INS veteran who thought it up in the first place is now enjoying early retirement.

The INS got the message and developed a new interior-enforcement policy that gave up on trying to actually reassert control over immigration and focused almost entirely on the important, but narrow, issues of criminal aliens and smugglers. As INS policy director Robert Bach told the New York Times in a 2000 story appropriately entitled "I.N.S. Is Looking the Other Way as Illegal Immigrants Fill Jobs": "It is just the market at work, drawing people to jobs, and the INS has chosen to concentrate its actions on aliens who are a danger to the community." The result is clear the San Diego Union-Tribune reported earlier this month that from 1992 to 2002, the number of companies fined for hiring illegal workers fell from 1,063 to 13. That's thirteen. In the whole country.

Coming at it from the other side, when we have tried to enforce the law, it's worked, until we gave up. The aforementioned Operation Vanguard in Nebraska was a good example - if enforcement wasn't working, why would the employers have bothered to organize against it? Likewise, in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 1986 immigration law, illegal crossings from Mexico fell precipitously, as prospective illegals waited to see if we were serious; we weren't, so they resumed their crossings.

In the wake of 9/11, when we stepped up immigration enforcement against Middle Easterners (and only Middle Easterners), the largest group of illegals from that part of the world, Pakistanis, fled the country in droves to avoid being caught up in the dragnet. And the Social Security Administration in 2002 sent out almost a million "no-match" letters to employers who filed W-2s with information that was inconsistent with SSA's records; i.e., illegal aliens. The effort was so successful at denying work to illegals that advocacy groups organized to stop it and won a 90-percent reduction in the number of letters to be sent out.

Tony Blankley, the Washington Times's editorial-page editor, summed it up nicely in a recent column:

I might agree with the president's proposals if they followed, rather than preceded, a failed Herculean, decades-long national effort to secure our borders. If, after such an effort, it was apparent that we simply could not control our borders, then, as a practical man I would try to make the best of a bad situation. But such an effort has not yet been made.

The Journal's editorial writers, despite their many strengths, suffer from the malady of all utopian ideologues: an unwillingness to acknowledge facts that are inconsistent with infallible theory.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.