Why & When workplace enforcement of illegal aliens stopped
Politicians count on constituent ignorance and poor memory. Anything over a 30 second soundbite gets by most of us. And just because a politician says today that immigration enforcement is important, doesn't mean he always felt that way.
Workplace raids by INS were frequent until the late 1990's. A spring 1998 sweep that targeted the Vidalia onion harvest in Georgia, and Operation Vanguard, a 1999 INS operation on meatpacking plants in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, provide case studies of how the immigration laws fared when confronted by a coalition that included low-wage immigrant workers and the industries that hire them.
The Georgia raids netted 4,034 illegal immigrants, prompting other unauthorized workers to stay home.
Instead of being applauded for enforcing the law, the INS came under attack from Georgia's congressional delegation. Georgia's two senators and three of its House members, led by then-Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) and Rep. Jack Kingston (R), complained in a letter to Washington that the INS did not understand the needs of America's farmers. The raids stopped.
Sen. Paul Coverdell condemned the INS for its "military-style" raid "against honest farmers," calling it "an indiscriminate and inappropriate use of extreme enforcement tactics."
He then insisted the INS not raid Georgia agricultural fields and crafted a ‘temporary work’ program for the state of Georgia with the INS that allowed undocumented workers to stay ‘legally’ in the U.S. The same has happened in other states like Oregon, and Washington at the insistence of their elected representatives.
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. By 2003 workplace arrests of illegal immigrants for the entire year totaled 445. In 2004, just three businesses nationwide were fined for employing illegal immigrants. In 1999, the United States initiated fines against 417 companies.
The Macon Telegraph described the episode, " Farmers and immigration officials came to terms on migrant labor issues Friday morning, ending the siege on Georgia's sweet onion fields. But a storm of criticism from the state's congressional delegation of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's action is brewing on the horizon. Eight members of Congress signed an angry letter Friday afternoon to three of the Clinton administration's top cabinet officers, blasting the INS for its timing"
"The opposition to enforcement was so great that it changed the direction the INS took," said Gordon Hanson, immigrant expert and economics professor at the University of California-San Diego.
Said Doris Meissner, INS commissioner from 1993 to 2000: "Those things affect an agency's morale. You go out of your way to make it work, then it comes to nothing. Very demoralizing."
Operation Vanguard met a similar fate. Nebraska's members of Congress at first called for tougher enforcement, recalled Mark Reed, then INS director of operations. But when the result shut down some plants, "all hell broke loose," he said.
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns (R), who was governor at the time, appointed a task force to oppose the operation. Former governor Ben Nelson (D), now a U.S. senator, was hired as a lobbyist by meatpackers and ranchers. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) pressured the Justice Department to stop.
Republican Rep. Jack Kingston has since stated "Employers in roofing and poultry and other areas will say, `Immigrants will work longer and harder,' " he said. Still, he has moved from being one of the 1998 defenders of the onion growers -- "For us, it was just constituent work," he said -- to becoming an outspoken proponent of get-tough immigrant proposals.
Now, he said he believes businesses should be required to verify an employee's legal status. He also is in favor of harsher penalties for employers who violate immigration laws.
He doesn't, however, think such sanctions will be part of any new bill.
"The business lobby," he said, "is too strong."
Lobbyist and White house guru, Grover Norquist, a force behind the verification weakening, said: "The idea was that our job is to enforce the present rules that don't work -- rather than change the rules."
Or in Norquist's case, just do away with any border/immigration enforcement.
By 2000, according to INS figures, the estimated number of illegal immigrants had risen to 7 million, from 3.5 million in 1990.