Today, 12/18. Here it is:
December 18, 2006
When federal immigration officials raided six plants owned by Swift & Company, the world’s second largest beef and pork processor, last Tuesday, they brought Spanish translators. They knew exactly what kind of worker is found in low-paying, strenuous jobs in this country: recent Latino arrivals with limited skills and, in many cases, no legal papers. Nearly 1,300 people — almost 10 percent of Swift’s work force — were taken away in what the government said was the largest but not the last assault on the underground immigrant economy.
The raids have led some people to heap scorn on Swift and, of course, on the illegal immigrants, particularly the dozens of detainees who have been charged with identity theft and other crimes. But doing so misses the bigger picture. Swift and its workers are merely Exhibit A in an immigration system that is failing in all of its parts.
It is a system that rewards illegality and pays lip service to lawfulness and order.
Swift insists that it is a model corporate citizen. It obeyed the rules, which require it to check workers’ identity papers and file so-called I-9 forms attesting to that. And it went further, participating in the federal Basic Pilot program, a system of checking Social Security numbers that President Bush has touted as a way to crack down on immigration fraud. The company says that prying any more aggressively into workers’ legal status would leave it open to civil rights lawsuits.
The Swift raids are powerful evidence that I-9’s and Basic Pilot are ineffective and disingenuous, a nod to by-the-books technical lawfulness that allows a far vaster world of illegality to flourish. Swift and other large-scale employers of immigrants, like farms and hotels, may insist that they never knowingly hire people illegally. But as long as the jobs they offer are the kinds whose pay and conditions consistently fail to attract native-born Americans, their protests will ring hollow. This system is brilliantly efficient at bringing lots of cheap products and services to market, which is great unless you mind its essential lawlessness, anonymity and reliance on an enormous work force of silent, compliant, frightened people whose bitter choice is to stay here illegally or go home and be desperately poor.
Swift, by its lights, was doing the right thing. The federal government was doing the right thing, waking up, belatedly, to workplace enforcement. And yet it’s impossible to see how this will work over the long term. Immigration reform built on piecemeal enforcement — factory raids and border walls — won’t solve the problem of the 12 million illegal immigrants already here. The American economy wouldn’t stand the shock if the Swift raids were multiplied to levels beyond the merely symbolic.
The system needs what Mr. Bush and Congress have refused to give it: a way to end the sham. Comprehensive immigration reform is good for the economy, giving companies access to a secure and stable work force. It is good for national security, allowing law enforcement to go after real criminals and leave honest working people alone. And it is good for the immigrant workers across the country, terrorized by Tuesday’s raids, who just want to keep doing their jobs, no matter how hard and distasteful.