Commentary: Immigration laws must be enforced if they matter at all

SAN DIEGO -- In the immigration wars, you have to choose your battles carefully. Otherwise, you wind up preaching to the choir. Nativists on the far right make bad choices when they try to limit legal immigration, declare English the national lan...

SAN DIEGO -- In the immigration wars, you have to choose your battles carefully. Otherwise, you wind up preaching to the choir.

Nativists on the far right make bad choices when they try to limit legal immigration, declare English the national language, and revise the 14th Amendment so that, in the future, the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants would no longer be U.S. citizens.

Those on the far left -- liberal Democrats, labor unions, immigrant advocates, open-border enthusiasts, etc. -- are making a bad choice by railing against raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at meatpacking plants in the Midwest.

In one of the most recent such operations, in Postville, Iowa, federal agents apprehended nearly 400 illegal immigrant workers -- most of them from Guatemala -- at Agriprocessors Inc., the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant. More than 250 were charged with identity theft for using false documents to procure employment. Since they waived their right to be indicted by a grand jury, some were immediately sentenced to five months in prison. Others were deported.

By the way, ever wonder why meatpacking and other food processing plants employ so many illegal immigrants? Spend just one 12- to 15-hour shift working in one of these places -- with the smell, blood, hazards and hard work for $7.25 an hour (the going rate according to an illegal immigrant seized in Postville) -- and you will wonder no more.


Critics of these raids should talk more about Americans' hypocrisy and how we helped make the mess we complain about. They should make an issue out of the fact that we've created a market for illegal immigrants by turning up our noses at the same hard and dirty jobs that our parents and grandparents did just a few generations ago.

Instead, those on the left are coming out swinging against workplace raids, which simply intend to hold people accountable for breaking the law.

Speaking recently to the National Council of La Raza, Barack Obama told the audience what it wanted to hear when he said, "The system isn't working ... when communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids -- when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel."

At a recent annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels asked colleagues to take a stand against immigration raids. The trio introduced a resolution calling on ICE to concentrate on businesses that exploit workers by violating wage and safety laws, not "responsible employers" that support the economy.

And Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, condemned "the failures of the Bush administration's costly raid and workplace enforcement strategy," which, he said, "destroys local communities but does nothing to fix our broken system."

Did you see what just happened? Liberals and others on the left have staked out a position that essentially says this: If illegal immigrants can make it past Border Patrol agents on the front lines, they should be able to find sanctuary as long as they punch a timecard.

Oh, there is plenty to criticize in the most recent round of immigration raids, starting with the fact that employers never seem to get punished as severely and as publicly as workers do -- at least not by immigration officials. (There is always the hope that other government agencies -- such as the U.S. Labor Department or even the Internal Revenue Service will look at a case and mete out their own brand of justice.) Or the fact that those who are apprehended often are herded like cattle and charged with heavy crimes such as identity theft. Or the fact that, lacking access to counsel, many plead guilty in proceedings they don't even understand, and end up in prison rather than simply being deported as they typically have been.

But on the larger issue of whether there should even be raids in the first place, the choice is simple: You either think that immigration laws are important and should be enforced -- including through worksite raids -- or you don't.


Apparently, there are a lot of folks out there who fall into the second category. And, even though it might be based on good intentions, that kind of thinking is not very useful to the debate.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is .

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