Rounding Up The Usual Suspects
Porous borders are partly a result, not just the cause, of failed immigration policy.


John O’Sullivan

It happened Wednesday of last week and it was nicely timed.

One week later the U.S. Senate was scheduled to reconvene and to discuss an immigration bill. The bill proposes to amnesty most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and to admit millions more legally as guest workers. It is a controversial measure, strongly promoted by the White House and both party leaderships in the Senate but firmly opposed by most Republican congressmen, an overwhelming majority of Republican voters, and a large majority of all voters. And, according to the polls, the opposition was growing daily.

Something was needed to break the log-jam.

President Bush spoke in favor of the legislation on Monday of this week while on his California trip. Given his most recent poll figures (33 percent approval rate and falling), however, it was clear in advance that a presidential speech would not be enough to turn the tide.

He then hosted a White House bipartisan rally of Democrat and Republican Senators to boost its prospects. But the list of those Republicans not invited was more impressive than the attendees.

Action was needed–tough, forceful and popular action–or at least the appearance thereof.

So it was that on Wednesday morning last week federal agents “swooped” on plants in 26 states belonging to IFCO, a U.S. subsidiary of a Dutch company supplying wood pallets and plastic containers to industry, and arrested 1187 illegal immigrant workers. Seven former and current IFCO managers were also charged with employing illegal aliens.

On the very next day Homeland Security Czar Michael Chertoff addressed a press conference to stress that such tough enforcement of immigration law, internally as well as at the border, would now be the rule. Having established its willingness to crack down on illegality, the administration’s political machine crossed its fingers and hoped that this display would now help passage of the “Not an Amnesty” law.

All this was not only timely; it was powerfully symbolic. What it symbolized, however, was not the tough enforcement of immigration law but its colander-like leaky ineffectiveness.

For even before Chertoff had spoken (but not before the shrewd blogger, Michelle Malkin, had predicted it), four-fifths of the illegals arrested had been released. Two hundred and seventy-five of them were deported. The rest were sent away in return for a promise to return for a court hearing. Many, probably most, will now disappear. And since the government’s computers were “down” at the time, their brush with immigration enforcement may not even be officially recorded. They are home dry–well, dry anyway.

How long has this been going on? In a recent column I suggested–wrongly, my apologies–that there had been little or no enforcement of employer sanctions since the passage of the 1986 amnesty law. All enforcement had been at the border, rather than internally throughout the U.S. Once an illegal reached a major city such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, or Chicago, he was safe from official interest and could work unmolested.

That was not quite accurate. President Clinton had been nervous of immigration as a political issue since he had lost the governorship of Arkansas following the “Mariel” incident. He blamed his defeat on a voter backlash to Fidel Castro’s emptying the Cuban jails onto a ship headed for Florida and to the sanctuary of the U.S. He was cautious thereafter. “Internal” enforcement of employer sanctions under Clinton was patchy but not wholly lax.

For instance, in the years 1995, 1996, and 1997, there were between 10,000 and 18,000 worksite arrests of illegals annually. In the same years about 1,000 employers were served notices of fines for employing them. Under the Bush administration, worksite arrests fell to 159 in 2004 when there was also the princely total of three notices of intent to fine served on employers.

Three! (My apologies again, incidentally. I had erroneously cited the figure of four such notices in my recent column. )

As my old National Review colleague Ed Rubenstein points out, these figures show that worksite arrests under Bush have fallen from Clintonian levels by something like 97 percent–even though September 11 occurred in the meantime.

This dramatic relaxation of internal enforcement explains the rapidly rising estimate of immigrants living and working illegally in the U.S. In the last year it has risen by more than a million. For if people know that they are likely to be safe from enforcement once they escape the border area and reach L.A. or Chicago, then they will keep trying even if they were caught and returned to their country of origin any number of times.

Porous borders are not only the cause of uncontrolled immigration; they are its result. You cannot control the borders, however many patrols you hire or fences you build, if you grant an effective pardon to anyone who gets a hundred miles inland. It’s as simple as that.

Some supporters of the “Not an Amnesty” bill cite this history as a reason for Congress to allow all or almost all of the estimated 12 million illegals to remain in the U.S. In his California speech President Bush himself–whose failure to enforce the immigration laws has made the problem much worse–argued that we cannot deport illegal immigrants. The U.S. has no stomach for workplace raids and mass deportations.

That argument sits oddly alongside two facts. First, Bush administration officials just rounded up 1,187 illegals precisely because they thought it would be a popular move and thus likely to smooth the path of an unpopular amnesty law. Second, the U.S. currently deports (or insists on the “voluntary departure” of) about 1.2 million people annually.

Most of these are people apprehended and returned at the border. But about 100,000 illegal immigrants are removed from the interior of the U.S. every year. Most Americans support this law enforcement rather than regarding it as a shameful “Gestapo” policy.

Yet as Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has shown in several studies, the happy truth is that mass deportation of millions is not necessary to solve the problem. If the law were enforced more uniformly-rather than with the current 159 worksite raids and three employer fines annually-then the news of this would spread.

This law enforcement would send a message to those considering illegal entry into the U.S. that they could no longer depend on legal immunity and secure employment once they reached the interior. They would now have an incentive to remain at home. Those illegals already here, finding their opportunities drying up, would have an incentive to return home. And the border would, seemingly by magic, become less porous as interior law enforcement reduced the incentive to cross it.

Only thousands would be deported, but millions would either quietly leave or, where possible, regularize their position. These changes would occur gradually over years just as the problem itself grew over years. And this gradualism would allow businesses to adapt gradually to the tighter labor market–by paying higher wages to legal workers, mainly Americans, by automating some jobs, and by exporting others to where labor is significantly cheaper.

Mark Krikorian calls this “the attrition strategy.” It is far more practical than the either an amnesty or a guest-worker program. And it requires neither legislation nor official game-playing to implement it.

By contrast, every time the unpopular Bush-Senate “compromise” bill meets an obstacle, Karl Rove will have to pick up a telephone and utter the famous line from Casablanca:

“Round up the usual suspects.”

John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II.


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