Giving Enforcement a Chance

Before We Give Up On Immigration Enforcement, Why Don't We Try It?

By Mark Krikorian on January 30, 2006

National Review, January 30, 2006

Here's a new definition of chutzpah: obstructing immigration enforcement -- and then claiming that the huge illegal population is proof the law can't be enforced.

That's what supporters of the various guestworker/amnesty proposals inevitably do. They claim that the United States has tried, but failed, to enforce the immigration laws, so it's time for something new. On its face, this assertion might seem plausible. The illegal-alien population has grown from perhaps 3 million at the end of the last amnesty about 15 years ago to more than 11 million today. Over that same period, the federal government more than doubled the size of the Border Patrol and prohibited the knowing employment of illegal aliens. In the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial, "If a policy keeps failing for nearly two decades maybe some new thinking is in order."

Well, think again. The reality is that increased enforcement has been focused almost exclusively at the border, and even that effort has been laughably inadequate. Any Border Patrol agent will tell you that he and his colleagues can't be expected to shoulder the entire weight of immigration enforcement. Border enforcement must be complemented by vigorous and comprehensive enforcement of the immigration laws inside the country as well, in order to eliminate the magnet of jobs that attract illegals in the first place -- and this we have all but abandoned.

Let's give border enforcement its due: Where it's been serious enough, it has made a difference.
Over the past decade, new deployment strategies -- plus more fencing, lighting, remote sensors, etc. -- have been focused on two areas, El Paso and San Diego, and the results have been dramatic. In the words of one report, "Operation Hold the Line had an immediate and visible impact on the El Paso community, as illegal entries and apprehensions declined dramatically and so did petty crime and charges of human rights violations by Border Patrol agents." Results were similar in San Diego.

Unfortunately, however, this has led to increased crossings in other areas. Even after a supposedly huge buildup at the border, our operations there remain sadly inadequate: During any given shift, there's an average of about one agent per mile patrolling the southern border, and too much of the fencing is designed solely to keep cattle from wandering off.

And the situation is even worse when it comes to interior enforcement. In 1986, President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which swapped amnesty for a first-ever ban on hiring illegal aliens. But enforcement of the ban never became a priority; a listing of all fines through May 2000 shows hundreds of mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants, but only three Wal-Marts. What's more, the law itself was hopelessly flawed because Congress did not require the development of a secure verification mechanism: Employers were instead forced to contend with a blizzard of easily forged paper documents. Only in 1996 did Congress require the immigration service to develop a pilot system to verify the legal status of new hires, a system that was entirely voluntary and limited to a few states.

The old INS tried to enforce this defective law -- and was publicly slapped down for making the effort. For instance, when the agency conducted raids during Georgia's Vidalia-onion harvest in 1998, hundreds of illegal aliens -- knowingly hired by the farmers -- abandoned the fields to avoid arrest. By the end of that week, both of the state's senators and three congressmen, Republicans and Democrats, had sent an outraged letter complaining that the INS "does not understand the needs of America's farmers." That was the end of that.

The INS then 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 industry was weaned off 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 meatpackers and the ranchers hired former governor Ben Nelson to lobby on their behalf; and Sen. Chuck Hagel pressured the Justice Department to stop the operation. They succeeded, the operation was ended, and the INS veteran who thought it up in the first place was forced to retire.

The INS got the message, and developed a new interior-enforcement policy that gave up trying to actually reassert control over immigration and focused almost entirely on the important, but narrow, issues of criminal aliens and smugglers. In a 2000 story appropriately titled "I.N.S. Is Looking the Other Way as Illegal Immigrants Fill Jobs," INS policy director Robert Bach told the New York Times: "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 -- from 1992 to 2002, the number of companies fined for knowingly hiring illegal workers fell from 1,063 to 13. In 2004 the number was even lower: three.

Even after 9/11, the federal government remained hostile to immigration enforcement. After the Border Patrol had the temerity, in 2004, to conduct sweeps that netted several hundred illegal aliens in southern California's Riverside County, officials in Washington apologized. Undersecretary of homeland security Asa Hutchinson said that in the future he would "consider the sensitivities associated with interior enforcement of our immigration laws." The frustration of immigration agents was palpable. One agent said: "We don't know which way to turn -- for once, we were doing our job, what the government pays us to do."

This, then, is our current approach to immigration enforcement: make it hard (a little harder, anyway) to get across the border, but easier than ever to burrow in once you get to the interior. Short of opening the borders altogether, it would be hard to design a policy better suited to increase illegal immigration.

The policy is especially hard to understand because whenever we have tried to enforce the law, it has actually worked -- until we gave up, that is. The Operation Vanguard effort 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. In 2002, the Social Security Administration sent out almost a million "no-match" letters to employers who had filed W-2s with information that was inconsistent with SSA records. The effort was so successful at exposing illegal aliens that business and advocacy groups organized to stop it and won a 90 percent reduction in the number of letters to be sent out.

Tony Blankley summed it up nicely in a 2004 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."

In December 2005, the House of Representatives took the first step toward such an effort when it passed an immigration bill, H.R. 4437, that includes vital interior-enforcement measures. The furious reaction of most amnesty supporters suggests they know perfectly well that immigration enforcement has never really been tried -- and they mean to see that it never will be.


Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.