Wednesday, December 13, 2006

How Do We Punish Employers That Hire Illegals?

Yesterday federal officials raided six Swift meat processing plants in the U.S., including one in Hyrum, Utah, arresting hundreds of illegal aliens that had obtained employment using falsified and/or stolen documents (see SL Trib, Des News, Logan Herald). While many have clamored for this type of action, its effect is obviously causing some second thoughts in some circles.

In light of very poor enforcement, there have been loud calls for punishing businesses that hire illegals. It appears that the feds are now doing that. Swift has suspended operations at the raided plants. It’s not clear whether Swift will face any kind of civil or criminal prosecution. It would be easy for them to argue that they had appropriate documentation for all of their workers and that federal regulations prevent them from raising residency or citizenship questions once documentation has been provided.

However, it is far easier to penalize the workers that obtained employment through widely used, but fraudulent means. Some that have called loudly for raids on offending businesses are now crying foul. Somehow they seem to think that the illegal workers should get off Scot free. Many of the stories in the MSM also decry the feds as Grinches for performing the raid just days before Christmas (as if we want the government to stop all enforcement operations during the month of December).

The main crux of the punish-the-evil-employer theory is that illegals are merely pawns in a corrupt system, so they bear little responsibility for their actions. Employers, on the other hand, are assumed to be far more culpable, being much higher up the chain of corruption. The theory assumes that stanching the supply of jobs for illegals by punishing offending employers will result in a lower supply of illegals coming across the border to get jobs. Supporters of this type of action include employers (that presumably hire no illegals) that claim that they can’t compete with employers that reduce their labor costs by hiring illegals.

Yet others argue that both the employers and the illegal workers are simply responding to market pressures, and are, therefore, not fully culpable for their actions. Some in this camp feel that borders are inherently immoral and/or that it is immoral to keep people from coming here that simply want to work and improve their lives and the lives of their families.

Our society, however, is also founded on the principle of personal responsibility. Our history shows that we do not like the perception of institutionalized corruption and that we are willing to take stark, but measured actions to combat it when it gets bad enough. However, we tend to hold individuals accountable for their actions and decisions. We are also a fairly forgiving society when individuals are penitent and/or there are mitigating circumstances surrounding a person’s unfavorable actions. But we tend to apply the punishment first and then consider mercy later unless the individual enjoys broad public sympathy up front.

We should crack down on employers that hire illegals. But that does not mean that we should excuse illegals that work for them. Enforcement must cut both ways.

Also, it is important to recognize that some of our own regulations that are intended to prevent discrimination actually provide cover for the employers. If Swift is charged, the case will be very difficult to prosecute, because Swift will likely be able to argue that it fully complied with government regulations.

This is likely to be the case, even if it is suggested that Swift encouraged falsified documentation via a wink and nod hiring process. To successfully prosecute employers, we would have to change our regulations, which would be construed as encouraging discrimination. It does not appear that anyone is willing to do that right now. Perhaps Swift will use stricter hiring practices when it begins operating its plant again, but there’s no guarantee of that.

Swift will suffer economically for hiring illegals, but it will likely not suffer legally thanks to existing regulations. Swift’s illegal workers, on the other hand, will suffer both economically and legally.


Jesse Harris said...

Congress has already demonstrated an unwillingness to get tougher on the kind of ID theft encompassed by illegal workers, so I think it's up to the states. As a condition of getting a business license, they should all be required to verify the owner of a SSN before it can be used. There's already a hotline to do this with, but it's totally voluntary. If we make it mandatory, it introduces more risk for illegal workers and helps thwart ID theft.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The trouble with the SSN verification is that the illegals have gotten smart enough to use SSNs of people with similar names and ages. They simply co-opt the legal person's birthdate. Then when the employer makes the call, everything appears to be on the up and up.

Sometimes illegals are duped into believing that the process they have gone through pretty much makes them legal. IRS has a problem with this when well-intentioned illegals file tax returns for the work they have done. IRS also has problems when the W-2s for an illegal don't show up on the tax return for the legal resident whose SSN they are using. It creates a confusing mess as to whom is whom and who is the legal owner of the SSN and who isn't.

The SSN verification thing sounds good, but in reality it is far messier than its promoters admit.

That One Guy said...

Indeed, it's going to be a jumbled mess, with multifacets everywhere... leaving this to the states will make oversight a nightmare. FEDERALLY, there needs to be some major overhaul of ID systems, and their verification/implimentation in the workplace.

Then there needs to be tough penalties for those who overstep them. Both employers and employees.

The damage currently being perceived here is only the tip of the real iceberg, one that nobody really wants to see in its entirety.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I find it interesting that there is strong public sentiment against improving government-sponsored ID systems. Americans have harbored a certain level of distrust of government since our nation's inception. Orwell's Big Brother (from his novel 1984) resonates very well in the American psyche.

We largely seem not to mind improvement of ID systems in the marketplace and to a certain extent in business, but perhaps that is because participation in these is at least somewhat optional. We distrust big business, but seem to trust market forces far more.

Common sense should dictate that we need modernized, bulletproof government ID systems. But it seems that Americans distrust government enough to accept the risks and inconveniences of not doing so.

Charles D said...

So the workers are locked up and deported, but "it's not clear whether Swift will face any kind of civil or criminal prosecution." That's fair - NOT!

Failing to punish the employer or giving them a virtual slap on the wrist is certainly not going to slow down the tide of immigrants. They are coming here to find work and as long as they are successful they will keep coming. The workers are motivated by the need to support their families - put food on the table and a roof over their heads. The corporations are motivated by greed - they get cheap employees who cannot afford to complain about anything and are impervious to union organizing and they pocket the savings.

If either party has an ethical defense it is the worker. Punishing both parties equally would be fair though. Let's deport the workers and revoke the corporate charter of Swift and sell their assets to the highest bidder.

NonArab-Arab said...

Why should anybody be punished? The law is unjust and unwise and should be repealed. End illegal immigration by ending the illegality of immigration, let anyone who wants to come and who can show they are not otherwise a criminal enter. This land is God's patrimony to anyone who wants to come here and live a peaceful, productive life -- not just the patrimony of those who made it here one generation or more ago. 99% of us are ultimately immigrants, what makes us any better than the new wave of immigrants? Immigration is the single driving force that has built and is building America. There have also always been people who slandered immigrants and people who used supposed claims of higher principles to mask thinly veiled economic protectionism or prejudices (against Irish Germans, Slavs, Jews, etc. and nowadays Latinos, Indians, Arabs, etc.) The economic literature is equally clear: at worst immigration is a net neutral, but in most studies it is a significant plus. If you really want to see America collapse economically, just enforce the immigration laws as they are now on the books and you'll have economic Armageddon and we'll all be out of work. In the meanwhile, the immigrants are already here at our own invitation whether we admit it or not, I for one prefer to have a system where we don't try to deceive ourselves into claiming otherwise and give them the same fair shake we've all been blessed with. That's the American dream, I'd like to nurture it, not kill it.

Scott Hinrichs said...

DL, I think we agree. It is not fair to punish the workers while giving the complicit employers a slap on the wrist. However, our current laws and regulations are designed toward that end.

NAA, you make some good points. Throughout the history of this country, those that have opposed immigrants have ultimately ended up on the short end of the political stick. For all that immigration costs us in the short term, history does show that it is a net gain -- by a long shot. That does little to mitigate the short-term growing pains it causes.

TOG is himself an immigrant. I am the son of an immigrant. TOG will be the first to tell you that our current immigration laws stink. But he also believes that there is value in making immigration tough, because legal residency and citizenship in this country are of very great value. I am in favor of making it possible to bring in as many as are willing to abide the laws of the land and contribute to our society. However, the screening out of the criminal element is very difficult with more open immigration policies.

Scott Hinrichs said...

P.S. Our current de facto open immigration policy (where enforcement is sparsely and unevenly applied) does an awful job of controlling the flow of the criminal element.

Charles D said...

In order to "control the flow of the criminal element", you need to actually have a legal flow. If we chose to permit unlimited legal immigration into the United States, the large number of illegal border crossings would disappear. Then we could easily identify the criminals and turn them back or prosecute them.

Scott Hinrichs said...

That is a valid point.