Joke on America: Hiring Illegals

Ha ha ha. That's a good one. Wal-Mart, a company with $285 billion in sales, gets fined a mere $11 million earlier this month for having hundreds of illegal immigrants clean its stores.

The federal government boasts it's the largest fine of its kind. But for Wal-Mart, it amounts to a rounding error - and no admittance of wrongdoing since it claims it didn't know its contractors hired the illegals.

If it weren't so easy for illegals and employers to skirt worker ID verification, the settlement's requirement that Wal-Mart also improve hiring controls might have a ripple effect in corporate America. But the piddling fine will hardly deter businesses from hiring cheap labor from a pool of illegals that's surged by 23 percent since 2000.

It's commonly argued that Americans don't want the jobs illegals take. But a workforce of perhaps 7 million undocumented workers depresses wages. Those wages would readjust upward, and be attractive to Americans and legal immigrants, if the stream of illegals significantly abated. Promise of work in the US encourages illegal (and dangerous) border crossing. That's why the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided for sanctions against businesses that hire the undocumented.

But enforcement is pathetically inadequate, especially since 9/11.

Facing limited resources, immigration officials have necessarily redirected priorities to protecting critical infrastructure. For instance, more than 1,100 unauthorized alien workers with access to sensitive areas at airports have been arrested.

Even so, the sanctions' decline is staggering. In 1999, fines totaling $3.69 million were collected from 890 companies. Last year, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) collected $118,500 from 64 companies. But it levied zero fines. Zero.

Lax enforcement spans administrations, and experts blame the twin pressures of ethnic advocacy and business interests. Decentralized hiring and high turnover compound the problem. Many large corporations have fobbed off hiring responsibility on contractors, and after them come scads of smaller businesses that rely on the undocumented.

That's why it's especially important that local law enforcement be alert. The ICE might never have stumbled upon the Wal-Mart case had it not been for the local police in Honesdale, Pa., whose follow-up on a hit-and-run accident led them to the Wal-Mart workers. But like the feds, state and county governments also face limited resources.

The ICE says Wal-Mart's fine will fund future enforcement. That could be a model - but only if fines amount to more than a slap on the wrist.

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