With a US jobless rate about 8 percent, imagine the mixed reaction in the Obama White House last month when federal agents arrested 28 workers in Washington State suspected of being illegal immigrants. Those jobs could now go to Americans. In 2008, however, candidate Barack Obama won the Hispanic vote in part by decrying such crackdowns on illegal hires.
The federal raid at the Yamato Engine plant was the first such action under the Obama administration. It surprised even Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, who should have known it would happen. Her reaction? She merely asked for a review.
The recession is changing the debate on illegal immigration. About 5 percent of jobs in the US are held by such migrants. With so many Americans now looking for work – even as dishwashers – President Obama theoretically could fulfill his goal of "creating or saving" 3.5 million jobs by deporting most of the 12 million illegal migrants.
But he won't, for both practical and political reasons. And in many cases, deportation would be inhumane. Of the 2.2 million immigrants deported in the decade ended 2007, 4.5 percent have children who are citizens by being born on US soil.
And a few raids on workplaces have also been done badly, or as candidate Obama characterized them: "Communities are terrorized ... when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing." These are vivid images and the arrest of any parent could be traumatic for children. But emotions run so high about illegal migrants that politicians easily polarize the issue.
Mr. Obama promised a solution to this massive lawlessness within his first year as president, including a crackdown on employers who hire illegal migrants "instead of hiring citizens." Finally, last week he said a plan would be ready in "the next several months."
But he's already undercut one solution. His original stimulus bill had money for a program called E-Verify that helps businesses double check the ID of applicants or workers. But the funding was stripped. He also delayed a rule requiring federal contractors to use E-Verify. Now many of the construction jobs to be created by the stimulus could go to illegal workers.
Obama still plans to expand E-Verify but his early actions reveal an ambivalence to make immigration enforcement a top priority. He's under pressure from Democrats to legalize the status of illegals. Taking such a step before the border with Mexico is secure or employers know they face certain punishment for hiring illegals would only invite a new flood of immigrants. After a 1986 amnesty for illegal migrants, their population grew fourfold.
An "enforcement first" approach was the message that Americans delivered strongly to Congress when it tried to legalize illegals in 2006. Since then, more border patrols, electronic detectors, and a fence have reduced crossings.
But federal efforts to sweep workplaces of illegal workers – humanely – is still a work in progress. Such efforts need both reform and more money. If done carefully, unemployed Americans will be grateful for this obvious job stimulus.