In its battle against undocumented immigration, the Trump administration appears to be focused on looking tough rather than addressing real problems.
Judging from the latest official statistics on the worksite enforcement actions of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency is devoting its resources to capturing large numbers of low-level undocumented workers who are drawn to this country by the demands of our labor market. Missing from this equation is any attempt by the Trump administration to reform the immigration system so that it better matches the economic reality and labor demands of American businesses.
In Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) opened 6,848 worksite investigations—up from 1,691 in FY 2017. Moreover, HSI initiated 5,981 “I-9 audits” (compared to 1,360 during the previous fiscal year), which involve checking company records to ensure that no undocumented immigrants are on a company’s payroll.
This emphasis on catching and deporting workers rather than providing people with a legal way to come and contribute shows that the administration cares little that labor demands are not being met under existing legal limits on immigration. As a result, “getting tough” on workers becomes economically self-destructive. Unleashing ICE upon the workers themselves makes for a good photo op for the administration but leaves a woefully outdated system intact.
The brand of worksite enforcement being practiced by ICE fails to account for the fact that job openings are high and unemployment low in many of the industries in which undocumented immigrants tend to work (such as construction, restaurants, and landscaping). Yet the legal pathways available to immigrants who want to fill these jobs is inadequate to meet demand. Undocumented immigration is the predictable result of this mismatch.
It is important to keep in mind that native-born workers would benefit if immigrant workers were able to enter the country through legal channels in numbers sufficient to meet demand. Undocumented workers can be exploited by unscrupulous employers; used to undercut wages, benefits, and working conditions for the native-born.
But legal workers cannot be so easily manipulated. The logical solution to this problem is to revamp the legal immigration system so as to make undocumented labor migration unnecessary.
Worksite raids to round up undocumented immigrants do nothing to create a system that actually works.