... 032306.htm

Illegals didn't create mess; legislators did
Published on: 03/23/06
The modern era of runaway, all-but-unregulated illegal immigration has a birthday — May 13, 1998 — and a birthplace— right here in Georgia.

On that date, about 45 federal immigration officials launched a raid on the Vidalia onion fields of southeast Georgia, where thousands of workers — 70 percent to 90 percent of them illegal — had been brought to pick the crop.

But instead of being lauded for enforcing the law, the Immigration and Naturalization Service came under blistering attack from Georgia's congressional delegation.

U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, who took the lead with U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, condemned the INS for its "military-style" raid "against honest farmers," calling it "an indiscriminate and inappropriate use of extreme enforcement tactics."

The political heat became so intense, with Cabinet officials dragged into the mess, that INS officials were forced to halt the raid and take the extraordinary step of granting "temporary amnesty" to the illegal workers it had arrested so they could go back to picking onions.

That unconditional surrender was the moment that everything changed. From that point forward, the INS abandoned any serious effort to enforce federal law.

In fact, just a few days after the aborted raid, top agency officials issued a memo to field offices nationwide, telling them that they had to give employers 24 hours' warning before they launched future raids on their workplaces, and demanding that top officials in Washington be notified before any further raids were launched.

Before that incident, the INS had been arresting and deporting almost 1,500 illegal immigrants a month. Afterward, the number dropped to almost nothing. By 2003 — the latest year for which a number is available — workplace arrests of illegal immigrants for the entire year totaled 445. In 2004, just three businesses nationwide were fined for employing illegal immigrants.

And unfortunately, abandoning workplace enforcement has had exactly the effect you might expect. Since the Great Onion Field War of 1998, with American jobs flung open to illegal immigrants, the annual influx has more than doubled.

Today, that flood is forcing our leaders to at least pretend to do something about illegal immigration. Johnny Isakson, the man who now holds Coverdell's Georgia Senate seat, has introduced legislation calling for hiring 1,500 new border-enforcement officers a year between 2007 and 2011, on top of the 2,000 additional officers a year already required under current law. Administration officials have warned Congress that 2,000 new agents is the maximum they can recruit and train a year, but that hasn't stopped Isakson and others from showboating by calling for still more.

Isakson's bill also calls for work on a border wall, the purchase of Predator unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor our 2,000-mile border with Mexico, and the purchase of helicopters and high-tech sensors, among other steps.

But the issue of workplace enforcement is all but ignored.

Theoretically, it might be possible to close our border with Mexico. But we've already tripled the number of border guards, with little or no impact on the number of immigrants coming here illegally.

In truth, U.S. officials have no real interest in trying to halt the influx of illegal immigrants to this country. Yes, they talk about the problem and pretend to want to do something, but they are also wary of the impact on agriculture, meat-packing, hotel-and-restaurant, construction and other industries that rely on illegal immigrants as a cheap, docile work force.

The result is a permanent American underclass of more than 10 million people, unofficially welcomed here with jobs but officially denied the right to vote, to go to college, to get a drivers license or otherwise participate in this country. In effect, they have become what black Americans were for so long under Jim Crow segregation, an easily exploited population with no power to protect itself.

Among some folks, that kind of talk doesn't stir much sympathy. As they point out, illegal immigrants are, well, illegal and must be punished. They have broken the law, and the law must be enforced.

Well, employers who hire illegal immigrants break the law too. It is a shameful hypocrisy to target one set of lawbreakers while ignoring another, but the profits are such that we find the shame tolerable.

• Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Thursdays and Mondays.