By Terry Carter, ABA Journal
While President Donald Trump’s administration is cracking down on illegal immigration, with stepped up deportations and proposing a wall on the border of Mexico, it has done nothing to address what some immigration officials for decades have considered the biggest problem: lax or nonenforcement of laws that penalize employers who hire undocumented workers, the Los Angeles Times reports.
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan, attacked the problem of illegal immigration from three angles: It gave amnesty and residency to about 3 million undocumented immigrants, beefed up border enforcement and made it illegal to hire undocumented workers.
But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests as well as members of Congress from the Midwest, which relies on cheap labor for the agriculture industry, supported the law only after sanctions for employers were weakened, said Peter Brownell, research director for San Diego-based the Center on Policy Initiatives. The result was low fines and a high-bar requirement that employers “knowingly employed” people who were in the country illegally.
“This made it difficult to prosecute cases,” Brownell said.
From fiscal 2009 to 2016, during the Obama administration, more than 2.5 million people were deported, while 1,337 business managers faced charges such as illegal hiring, tax evasion and money laundering.
“It’s always been easier to go after the workers,” said Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is now part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Citizenship and Immigration Services. “But is that any more than just counting numbers? Does that actually change the basic magnet effect of the jobs? No.”
In 1999, then INS official Mark Reed had agents raid meatpacking companies in Nebraska that hired undocumented immigrants. Thousands of workers fled in the wake of what was called Operation Vanguard.
Reed testified in a congressional hearing as the crackdown was underway, touting it as a model for enforcement.
“The neon light is on,” Reed testified at the hearing. “It has been for decades, and that neon light is driven by jobs. As long as those jobs are available, those people are going to come in.”