Tuesday, December 12, 2006

a new approach to immigration enforcement

From the WaPo today:

Federal agents targeting illegal immigrants raided meatpacking plants in six states yesterday, arresting hundreds of workers on the uncommon charge of identity theft and shutting down the world's second-largest meat processing company for much of the day.

About 1,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents with search warrants entered plants owned by Swift & Co., of Greeley, Colo., charging that "large numbers" of workers illegally assumed the identities of U.S. citizens or legal residents by using their Social Security numbers to get work, ICE officials said.

. . .

U.S. authorities cast the 11-month investigation as an attack on identity theft, not more typical immigration violations. Swift officials were not charged, despite recent administration vows to get tough on companies as well as workers.

Reframing the immigration debate in terms of “identity theft” does not productively advance the discussion. It is another way to criminalize what Congress had originally chosen to characterize as a civil offense—working without authorization and living in this country with no immigration status.

Identity theft connotes stealing someone’s credit card information and running up large bills, or using someone’s identity to take out credit cards and run up large bills. Implicit in the term is harm to the person whose identity is stolen. It is not clear to me how using nine numbers chosen at random that happen to constitute a social security number belonging to someone else harms the person whose number is used. At least it is not clear from the article. If these immigrants were using the social security numbers to steal something of value from the rightful owners, then “theft” would be a more accurate description. If immigrants are using the fake social security numbers to apply for credit cards, take out loans, etc.—things that might affect the credit rating of the true owners, then I would see more cause for concern. I’m not sure whether this is happening, and if so, if it is the reason the feds are taking this approach now. If so, it was nowhere mentioned in the article. Certainly the vast majority of illegal immigrants will not be attempting to steal money from people by fraudulently using their identities—you know, engaging in identity theft—because the last thing most of them want to do is get in trouble with the law. Most of the immigrants caught up in these raids have probably never even used a computer, much less perpetrated complicated electronic financial fraud.

Use of the term “theft” is generally understood to mean appropriation of something that belongs to someone else—taking for your own benefit something at someone else’s expense. Now, these immigrants are looking for the opportunity to work 70 hours a week at very low wages in order to make large companies billions of dollars. Since, for most of them, there is no legal channel for accomplishing this, they bend the rules in order to have the chance to basically be exploited. Accusing the immigrants of theft is simply Orwellian.
"Swift believes that today's actions by the government . . . raise serious questions as to the government's possible violation of individual workers' civil rights."

This is true, but also fairly hypocritical, since these companies benefit a great deal from the current system where their workers have no legal or political status in this country. Illegal workers can be easily fired or intimidated, can’t unionize, and will gladly take low wages with little complaint. I’d like to see the business community come out strongly and publicly in favor of a fair immigration program that provides them with the workers they need and provides those workers with the legal status they need, but so far I haven’t seen it.

If we continue to see ramped-up enforcement with no serious effort to address the underlying problems with the system, I think we will see more mass protests, more immigrant-friendly voters (principally, but not solely, latinos) becoming politically active, more legal challenges to the system, re-energized unions becoming more active, and serious erosion of the American bargain that if you work hard and keep your nose clean, you will get ahead.

Unfortunately, I don't see any easy solutions since the problems stem from an international legal/political system that is not currently able to deal with the changing global economic landscape.

1 comment:

Karla said...

Once we were on I-15 and stopped for gas in Filmore. There was some kind of immigration raid going on. I will never forget the panic and fear in the faces of the people trying to get hold of their families before being hauled away. Rob knows of children suddenly without a parent, families without a wage-earner--what happens to them? Tena too--some Pesi's relatives. It's easier to give a slick answer when you're not staring the reality of deportation in the eyes.