Return to Sender

What would comprehensive immigration reform look like if the Feds got off their duffs?

No organized criminal activity of that sort aimed at innocent mainstream American citizens could survive. But the operation exposed by VVM, preying on people only half-seen by society, survives and thrives.

To cleanse itself of these cancers, America must go after the cause, says Leopold. The place to start is outside immigration law, in the area of labor and workplace regulation. Leopold believes we must root out the core incentives that bring people here illegally in the first place.

The best way to protect U.S. workers and immigrants alike, he says, is to make sure American employers cannot and do not hire immigrant labor at lower-than-market wages, under worse conditions.

"We have to have safeguards to make sure immigrants are not subject to abuse by bad-actor employers because that is immoral, but also because we have to protect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers."

The Lamar Smith/Steve King contingent also likes the idea of strong enforcement. In fact, their battle cry has been enforcement first—enforcement at the border, enforcement in the workplace—but what they actually mean is enforcement to arrest and expel people, not to uphold laws protecting workers.

But it almost doesn't matter. Even with tough enforcement—labor law, trespassing law, whatever the country throws at them—poor immigrants will keep coming as long as there is work.

In 2005, the Mexican Migration Field Research and Training Program in Southern California studied "sending communities"—small towns in Northern Mexico whose populations often cross illegally into the United States.

Of those interviewed, 80 percent believed that border crossing had become much more difficult because of steps the United States had taken to close the border. Two-thirds knew someone who had died trying to cross.

But only 23 percent had been caught themselves. Ninety percent hired coyotes to smuggle them across. They said the coyotes always gave them three tries for one payment. Ninety-two percent of those who had been caught said they eventually made it into the United States, usually within a day of being caught.

Fifty-one percent of those interviewed said they would cross again within the year. But of those who said they would not cross that year, only 20 percent cited issues at the border. The rest said they would not cross because they didn't need the money, had family issues or were too old.

Since 2005 the U.S. Border Patrol has been carrying out Operation Streamline, the nation's most significant experiment in using criminal convictions as a cure for illegal immigration. An Oct. 21 VVM story showed that Operation Streamline is exceedingly expensive; swamps local courts; pushes illegal crossing from one part of the border to another; and generates vast revenue for Corrections Corporation of America, the private company paid to incarcerate prisoners taken by Operation Streamline. But a study by UC Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute found that the number of people arrested at the border fluctuates up and down according to the U.S. job market, not according to the efforts of Operation Streamline.

Conservative opponents to mass expulsion argue that some form of immigration—legal, illegal or something in between—is inevitable because it is driven by underlying market forces. If they're right, then mass expulsion becomes a never-ending nightmare.

Linda Chavez, the author and former Reaganite—a lifelong foe of affirmative action and crusader for English-language instruction in schools—sees Republicans like Lamar Smith and Steve King bending to a point of view that is in conflict with her sense of traditional GOP economic conservatism.

"The problem," she says, "is that they are really being driven on this issue by a confluence of groups including the Center for Immigration Studies, Federation for American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA, which are not just opposed to illegal immigration. They're opposed to legal immigration.

"They have a longstanding history of wanting limits and restrictions, and frankly, I think they would like zero population growth or even negative population growth."

Chavez says Republicans find themselves "in bed with people that frankly, ideologically, they don't have a whole lot in common with and being pushed to take positions which are totally inconsistent with free-market conservative economic principles."

Other conservative opponents of expulsion argue from religious conviction. The Reverend Bill Hybels, pastor of the 12,000-plus member Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, near Chicago, calls mass expulsion "impractical and immoral."

Hybels believes mass expulsion is the rock in the road that all Americans must negotiate morally to make up their minds about immigration. "You've got to put it front and center." He says the immigration debate has become infected with "anti-Mexican rhetoric," especially among some politicians.

But he sees all of that as changing. "I think we're making headway," he says. "More leaders are coming together, particularly in the faith community and the evangelical community."

Hybels is optimistic about the nation's ability to deal with the issue morally and successfully. "I think some of the grassroots are ahead of the politicians," he says.

None of it can be easy. Plumlee doesn't believe mass expulsion is a viable solution, but she points out that mass legalization will pose its own perplexing problems, especially in the "back-of-the-line" area.

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