All in a day's (illegal) work

Herndon, Va. could be Anytown, USA. Day laborers, many of them illegal immigrants, often clogged a 7-Eleven parking lot, creating unsanitary conditions and disorder. After heated debate, the town last month opened a work center for the jobbers. Order now reigns, but the debate rages on as illegal-immigration opponents seek to shut the center.

Herndon's actions reflect a national phenomenon about day laborers: Every day, workers gather in about 500 US parking lots and main streets (and increasingly, work centers), hoping they'll be picked for construction or other jobs by drive-up employers, according to a study released this week by the University of California in Los Angeles.

Here's the crunch, though: Three-quarters of these workers are illegal immigrants, the study finds. As a result, they're often stiffed of pay or otherwise abused. These open markets for illegal workers are a visible reason why illegal immigration is such a widespread concern and such a polarizing one - though it need not be.

First, illegal immigration is so talked about that members of the US House of Representatives dared not recess last month until they'd passed a strict border-enforcement bill.

With day laborers, Americans see with their own eyes that illegal immigration is no longer limited to the border states or select big cities. It's out in the open, in the exurbs, North and South. Now at an all-time high of 11 million, illegal migrants have been allowed to flourish, undercutting minimum-wage laws and straining public services. The obvious deluge explains why citizen groups in places such as Herndon are reporting contractors who hire suspected illegals to authorities - and wrongly, why they sometimes harass day laborers.

Now, for the polarization. As the UCLA study shows, these people may be illegal, but they're also a grossly disadvantaged underclass, calling out for a humanitarian response. They're defended by a Latino political constituency increasingly sought after by both parties. In response to this political pressure, some cities have developed hands-off "sanctuary" policies concerning the arrest of illegals. The feds, too, are more focused on stopping crime committed by illegals than enforcing the law banning known hiring of them. In 1992, 1,063 businesses were fined for such hiring. In 2004, three were.

In the immigration debate, and specifically on the hot-button issue of day laborers, compassion and law enforcement can work together.

A country that has become addicted to the cheap labor of illegals has an obligation to respond in a kind way to a problem it tolerates and encourages. Work centers are an appropriate temporary solution that can turn chaos to order. And minimum-wage laws should apply to all.

But the bottom line is that the US is a country of laws. Illegal immigration is a large-scale abuse of the law, with social and economic costs. The fact that states considered more than 300 immigration bills last year shows the absolute failure of the federal government to enforce immigration laws.

America is built on the contribution of foreigners who settle here. But that contribution must be legal.

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