The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) today released a report which, quite inadvertently, makes an excellent case for comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes undocumented immigrants already living and working in the United States. The report analyzes the high-profile federal immigration raids that were conducted on December 12, 2006, at six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas, and Utah. According to the report, wages and working conditions for Swift & Co. workers improved in the aftermath of the raids as more lawfully present immigrants and U.S. citizens joined the company’s labor force. The report rightly concludes from the example of Swift & Co. that wages and working conditions improve “when illegal immigrant labor is removed from the workplace.”

The key question, however, is how best to accomplish this. CIS has long advocated a costly, inefficient, and inhumane “enforcement-only” solution to the problem of undocumented immigration which would make Swift-style raids commonplace in factories, fields, construction sites, and restaurant kitchens nationwide. Yet this approach would cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars, while wreaking havoc on the economy and tearing apart countless families and communities in the process. One study estimates that it would cost between $206 billion and $230 billion over five years to apprehend, detain, and remove 10 million undocumented immigrants from the country. This estimate does not include the economic costs which would be incurred by employers whose workforces are suddenly depleted and businesses whose customers suddenly disappear.  Nor does it include the extraordinary human costs entailed in breaking up families that include more than three million native-born, U.S.-citizen children who have at least one undocumented parent.

The CIS report on the Swift raids hints at another unworkable and ineffective aspect of an enforcement-only approach to undocumented immigration. The report notes that, in 2006, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff observed that the federal government’s voluntary, electronic, employment-verification program (now known as “E-Verify”) can not detect identity theft in which a worker uses valid identity documents which belong to someone else. Given that CIS champions the mandatory use of E-Verify by all employers in the country, this leaves unanswered the question of exactly how E-Verify is supposed to ensure that undocumented immigrants don’t get jobs. And it does not even begin to address the thorny dilemma posed by E-Verify’s database errors. If implemented nationwide, it is likely that E-Verify would incorrectly flag hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants as being unauthorized to work in the United States, thereby at least temporarily denying them jobs.

Despite highlighting the benefits a legal labor force that does not include easily exploited undocumented workers, the CIS report reaches the rather disingenuous conclusion that “the presence of illegal immigrants did lower wages for workers” in Swift meatpacking plants.  This is a classic case of “blaming the victim” and misses the fundamental point. It is not undocumented workers who lower wages, but the employers who exploit undocumented workers to maximize profits at the expense of higher wages. What if a business was exploiting its African American workers in order to keep wages low? Would this mean that the presence of African American workers was lowering wages? Of course not. It would be evidence that wage and labor laws were either inadequate, or not adequately enforced, thereby allowing employers to exploit more vulnerable parts of the labor force to the detriment of all workers. One does not stop the exploitation of workers by blaming the workers who are being exploited, but by cracking down on the employers who engage in exploitation. The CIS report acts as if the only way to get meatpacking plants to raise wages is to decrease the size of their labor pool. How about passing and enforcing wage and labor laws that benefit all workers?

The CIS solution to low wages and poor working conditions for American workers is to spend hundreds of billions of dollars rounding up and expelling from the country millions of the most exploited workers—undocumented immigrants—and hope this persuades employers who can no longer find easily exploitable workers to raise wages. But comprehensive immigration reform that includes the legalization of undocumented immigrants, coupled with strong wage and labor laws, would be far more effective and efficient. Moreover, it would actually generate tax revenue for federal and state governments, rather than simply wasting taxpayer dollars and law-enforcement resources on the pursuit of busboys and nannies.

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