Bush's Looming Immigration Crackdown a Painful Exercise in Futility

This fall, Americans are going to witness a brutal and ham-fisted "crackdown" on illegal immigration by the Bush Administration. It will be a stark and tragic illustration of what happens when a vocal and well-organized minority of hardliners hijacks the country's legislative process.

The results are entirely predictable - the results of bad public policy are in some ways easier to forecast than good. Here's what we have to look forward to.

Over the next few months, the feds will launch some well-publicized SWAT team-style immigration raids much like the one earlier this year that Aimee Molloy described in Salon:


...swarms of armed federal agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement gathered in the blistering cold outside the Michael Bianco Inc. leather goods factory in New Bedford, Mass. At about 8 a.m., as a helicopter circled overhead and police kept watch in Coast Guard boats in the nearby harbor, the agents rushed the building military-style, blocked the exits, and ordered the employees to turn off their sewing machines, where most were busy stitching backpacks and vests for the U.S. military. By evening, 361 workers -- mostly from Guatemala and El Salvador -- had been taken into custody after they were unable to prove they had legal status to work in the United States. The factory owner and three managers were also arrested and charged in connection with hiring illegal aliens.
They'll be designed for some nice "tough on immigration" photo-ops, but they will have, at most, a superficial impact on the flow of immigrants into this country -- of that we can be as sure as we are that the sun will rise tomorrow.

How can one be so certain? Because the policy does nothing to address the underlying supply of willing foreign workers or the demand for exploitable migrant labor. Anyone who believes that such a policy has even a chance to work must also believe that Prohibition was a success and that Reagan won the "war on drugs" 20 years ago. Attempts to crack down on black markets for things like drugs, prostitution or immigration without addressing the economic factors that drive those markets simply will not work. In such cases, "enforcement only" has a proven track record -- it's perfectly ineffective.

The proof is in the pudding: as the effects of NAFTA were felt in the Mexican economy -- wiping out millions of jobs in the agricultural sector as cheap, subsidized corn flowed in from the States, the number of entries on the Southern border surged. Immigration hardliners repeat that we need only enforce the laws like a mantra, but what they don't tell you is that during the same period as the latest wave of immigration was cresting on our shores -- 1994 to 2005 -- enforcement dollars increased by 1200 percent.

There will be more of the same. Some fencing will be built on the Southern border. Some of it will divide communities that have long co-existed and who don't want a fence in their backyard. If need be, the ecology of a large swath of the southwest will be destroyed. And while there is likely going to be an increase in detentions along the border, the more prominent effect will be making military contractors with close ties to the government rich.

In fact, the noisy crackdown may even increase the incentive for workers from Latin America to migrate Northward. A recent study reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer helps explain the dynamic of what "pushes" Latin American immigrants to the U.S.:
Last week, the Inter-American Development Bank released the results of a survey showing that fewer Mexican workers in the U.S. are sending money to their families back home -- down from 71 percent to 64 percent in the first half of the year. In some states, it dropped to 56 percent from last year's average of 80 percent.
Ths study estimated that two million people in Mexico are losing some of the income they depend on from their relatives in the US. They'll need to supplement that in some way, and they already have an existing social network North of the border. The logic of the policy is perverse: Bush is launching immigrant raids for an inflamed base that will ultimately give an incentive for more illegal immigrants to come to the US.

Meanwhile, the "pull" side of America's immigrant labor market can only be addressed by protecting American jobs -- by guaranteeing workers the right to organize, a livable wage and fair benefits. That's not on the radars of either the White House or the right-wing immigration hardliners in Congress, but without it, there will remain millions of jobs that Americans won't do -- not because they lack a strong work ethic, but because many of those jobs that are now being taken by immigrants are dangerous or demeaning and pay crap wages.

In every case that people blame foreign-born workers for decimating native employment in an industry such as roofing or meat-packing there were lax regulations and busted unions --the conditions that allowed employers to turn them into undesirable occupations for Americans -- before there was a shift to undocumented workers.

The crackdown will hurt a few employers that rely on illegal immigrants, but anyone who thinks the Bush Administration -- effectively a mouthpiece for corporate America -- will truly threaten employers' supply of cheap labor doesn't appreciate how great the cost of losing our immigrant workforce would be.

The state of Texas isn't exactly a bastion of bleeding-heart liberalism, and a study released by its (Republican) comptroller last December concluded that eliminating the state's illegal immigrant population in 2005 "would have resulted in a 2.3 percent decline in employment, a 2.6 percent decline in personal income and a 2.8 percent decline in disposable personal income … This change also would generate a 2.1 percent decline in the gross state product (GSP), the broadest measure of the value of all goods and services produced in Texas."

What Will Happen After the Raids

After a few months of these photo-op raids, Bush will declare victory over illegal immigration, and cite statistics showing that the flow of immigrants from Latin America has decreased. The claim will be bogus, but the data will be legit -- the current wave of immigration peaked in 2001 and was decreasing before the right realized that immigrant-bashing was a good, pseudo-populist wedge issue.

There was a slight rebound in entries in 2004, but, according to Pew estimates, the rate of migration from Mexico -- which corresponds quite accurately with the overall rate of illegal immigration -- has been falling since the middle of last year. A number of indicators suggest that the annual increase in the Mexican-born population, which averaged 495,000 in 2005 and 2006, is projected at less than 290,000 for 2007 (PDF). Part of that may be due to increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, and it's possible that more potential migrants may stay at home due to the current crackdown, but most of the drop off is a result of Mexico's economic recovery -- after years of stagnation, GDP grew by 4.2, 3.0 and 4.8 percent in the last three years (PDF).

That brings us to the easiest prediction of them all: despite the fact that the flow of immigrants has been decreasing since well before Bush decided to make a showy crackdown, most reporters will be too lazy to fact-check the administration's claims and a lot of Americans will end up believing a policy that could never in a million years work is in fact working beautifully.

But they'll be disappointed by the lack of results in terms of the issues that concern them most. One thing that will certainly not come to pass as a result of this will be any improvement in the wages, job opportunities or benefits of native workers in the U.S.. A recent study (PDF) by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California found that in that state, home to a third of the country's foreign-born population, immigration "induced a 4 percent real wage increase for the average native worker." That included workers of all social classes-- "This effect ranged from near zero (+0.2%) for wages of native high school dropouts and between 3 and 7 percent for native workers with at least a high school diploma." The study found no impact on employment opportunities for American-born workers.

These findings confirm a large body of data showing little or no negative impact on natives' wages or employment. The only people who are hurt economically by the influx of new immigrants are immigrants who have been here for a while.

Even if corporate America were to lose its cheap and exploitable illegal workforce, the idea that they would turn around and start to offer American workers a fair shake -- a common belief, even among some on the left -- is fanciful. There's plenty of American production that can still be shifted overseas -- as any worker facing a union vote is told again and again by management. The Christian Science Monitor reports that farmers who are feeling a labor pinch right now are increasingly turning to prison labor.

But while Bush's raids are basically a joke in terms of public policy, the effects on real people aren't a laughing matter. As Aimee Molloy wrote, "Rarely has [a raid] been conducted without serious problems and mistakes, due primarily to clumsy coordination among government agencies that some find reminiscent of the handling of Hurricane Katrina, with similar repercussions on the communities affected."

Innocent people will be detained and some will be deported by mistake. People who look foreign or have foreign-sounding names will lose their jobs as companies fire anyone that may be illegal. Aside from the very public raids, the primary tool being used in the crackdown are "no-match" letters sent to employers when a worker's Social Security number doesn't match the name on file. Employers who don't take action can face tens of thousands in fines. But according to the Los Angeles Times, more than one in ten "no-match" letters are sent by mistake on perfectly legal workers. Huge numbers of people who have every legal right to work in the US will be caught up in the raids.

Families will be separated. In some cases, working parents will be detained or deported and their children will be abandoned to daycare centers or to the care of young siblings. About one in four illegal immigrants live in "mixed status" families along with US citizens or legal permanent residents. Some of those families will be torn apart.

And to make matters worse, law enforcement experts say that the crackdown is likely to provide strong new incentives for people to engage in identity theft. Bad public policy is always plagued by unintended consequences.

You don't need to be Nostradamus to predict that all of these things will go down exactly as I've described. The question is, what, exactly is motivating Bush? If he thinks the immigration hardliners -- a short-hand I use for the delusional 20 percent of the population who believe illegal immigration is the number one issue facing Americans today -- will be mollified, he is in for a rude awakening. They are not mollifiable. Right-wing talk-radio host Tammy Bruce illustrated the hardliners' perspective well when she wrote of the : "Commerce Sec[retary] Carlos Gutierrez announced what is being touted as a "" on illegal immigration, but in fact is amnesty." "Amnesty" is how they're describing a series of raids in which hundreds of federal troops swooped down on employers, rounded up workers and detained and then deported many of them.

More likely, he is trying to punish the hardliners within his base who have derailed all the efforts to pass a balanced set of immigration reforms. After all, it is not often that a senior Republican official announces a new White House policy and then says, as Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff did recently, that "there will be some unhappy consequences for the economy out of doing this."

To the degree that Bush's policy is designed to send a message to the American people -- and GOP business leaders and anti-immigration lawmakers -- then the injustice is in the fact that a lot of hard-working people just trying to get by are going to be subjected to a lot of pain.

Editor's note: U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney issued a temporary restraining order preventing the government from sending out the "no-match" letters described in this article until October 1, when the issue will come up for additional judicial review.

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