To curb illegal immigration, prosecute employers


ATLANTA -- Just once, I'd like to see a corporate executive whose company has knowingly hired illegal immigrants doing the perp walk for his offenses - handcuffed, disgraced, chaperoned by law enforcement officials as cameras record his every tentative step. For just a few days, I'd like to see the conservative blogosphere roasting the textile mill managers and onion field owners who routinely make a mockery of immigration law with a wink and a nod at forged documents. But that's not the way politics works, is it?

Business executives remain a core Republican constituency, so it's unlikely they'll end up facing criminal charges for illegal hiring. Besides, darker-hued Mexicans and Guatemalans seem to make more inviting targets than middle-age white men.

From time to time, I've suggested that the most inflammatory rhetoric swirling at the fringes of the illegal immigration debate is born not of legitimate concern about overwhelmed social services but rather out of an old-fashioned xenophobia that cannot accept "the other." That suggestion is usually greeted with denunciations from my critics, who claim they merely want the nation to enforce its laws.

So why is there so little criticism of business executives who routinely flout the law? Why has the legislation endorsed by law-and-order Republicans emphasized border security but slighted workplace enforcement?

Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia is among the hard-liners who oppose a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. Just last week, Mr. Chambliss said such a proposal "sends the message to the American people that we are more eager to give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship than we are to secure our borders from further illegal immigration and the smuggling of illegal drugs and weapons. That is not the message my constituents in Georgia want to hear."

But no matter how many troops President Bush sends to the southern border, no matter how high or thick the fence he builds, no matter how many billions he pushes down the black hole of technological wizardry, desperate Latinos will find a way to sneak across. The president has said as much.

The more promising solution lies in cutting off the flow of jobs. If a few business executives were to be imprisoned for illegal hiring, the practice would experience a sudden drop in popularity. And if our southern neighbors came to understand that there is no work available for undocumented workers, fewer would try to sneak into this country.

The technology required to implement a nationwide system for instant verification of Social Security numbers would be much cheaper and more reliable than the motion detectors, dirigibles, unmanned predator drones and other high-dollar gizmos that the Department of Homeland Security wants to buy for the southern border.

It would work as easily and quickly as an instant credit check. With such a system, business owners could be required to verify employment status; they'd lose the ruse of forged documents. But Congress has not appropriated funds to develop a nationwide verification tool.

Nor has it made any effort to remove the myopic regulations that hinder workplace enforcement. For example, the Social Security Administration is able to identify companies that routinely employ large numbers of workers using fake numbers. But by law, Social Security is forbidden from forwarding the names of those companies to the Homeland Security Department.

Don't think this useless system results from mere oversight or incompetence. The dysfunctional hodgepodge of regulations is preferred by the GOP, its business constituency and more than a few middle-class Americans, who benefit from cheap labor. Sure, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started to do a few high-profile raids of factories and fields certain to yield undocumented laborers. But those raids will wither away after November.

In 1998, officers from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service staged raids on southeast Georgia fields at harvest time for a prized local crop, Vidalia onions, rounding up scores of illegal workers. Growers howled in protest; on cue, several congressmen unleashed a blistering attack on the INS. One even accused the agency of "bullying" tactics.

That was Saxby Chambliss.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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