Illegals in the chicken plants

Last week’s massive raid of seven chicken-processing plants in Mississippi has prompted applause from those angry about illegal immigration and disgust by those who accuse the federal government of picking on vulnerable people for political purposes.

What we hope it most produces are heavy fines for companies and jail time for managers who employed hundreds of workers they knew, or had good reason to know, could not be legally hired. The federal government operates an online immigration status verification system called E-Verify. What remains to be determined is how these employers could have hired so many illegal immigrants while professing to have been using the E-Verify system.

Certainly, there are humanitarian concerns that must be addressed when adults — even if in the country illegally — are separated from their children. It is not the children’s fault that their parents broke in line and settled in the United States without following the law to get here and stay here.

There would, however, be a lot fewer illegal immigrants if there weren’t so many companies willing to hire them. The reason that people take great risks to cross this nation’s borders without permission — or stay in this country longer than their permission allows — is largely because they are looking for a better economic life than they have in their native lands. Take that financial lure away, and they will be less likely to take the risk.

Historically, though, this country’s efforts to curb illegal immigration have been targeted at the immigrants, not on the people who hire them and sometimes exploit them. Prosecutors say that’s because it’s hard to prove employers knowingly hired someone who didn’t have legal work authorization. The employers claim they are often fooled by fraudulent documents, but we have to wonder how hard they try to check out those documents.

Our guess is that when many employers hire illegals, they rationalize it to themselves by saying the illegals are willing to do the hard, unglamorous, sometimes nasty work — such as processing chickens — that a lot of people born in this country are not willing to do. If there’s truth to that, it still does not condone willfully ignoring or skirting the law.

If unsealed court documents in this past week’s raid are accurate, most of these chicken-processing companies or their managers were either complicit in the fraud or intentionally closed their eyes to it. In all seven plants raided, according to authorities, there were workers wearing electronic monitoring bracelets that had been put on them by the U.S. government after they were caught working illegally elsewhere. A worker might get away with hiding a monitoring bracelet for a little while, but not for long if managers are paying the least bit of attention.

The bigger picture is immigration reform. It is ironic that Mississippi, which has little population growth and pays hundreds of millions in government subsidies to attract jobs, should be the target for such a huge bust. If Gov. Phil Bryant is right and there are 45,000 unfilled jobs in Mississippi, we should be happy to have Mexicans working in jobs nobody else wants. This would require a great expansion in temporary legal work visas, especially work visas in states that are in need of economic expansion like Mississippi. But there is a stalemate in Congress over reform. The anti-immigration forces have blocked all efforts at expanding work visas, forcing industries to operate illegally or shut down. This is a shame for states like Mississippi where idled plants caused by labor shortages hurt local economies in desperate need for economic activity.

Several of the companies busted are busy trying to recruit new, legal employees. It will be interesting to see if the legal alternative employees are available or whether these companies will simply have to scale back production.

This week’s raid in Mississippi and the 680 arrests made a big splash for the Trump administration. But if it is really serious about curbing illegal immigration, it needs to put more emphasis on prosecuting the employers who open their doors to it. Do that enough, and the illegal jobs will dry up, and the illegal immigration with it. That would be a lot more effective — and a lot cheaper — than building a wall. Or better yet, work with Congress to expand temporary work visas in economically challenged states so companies can expand without breaking the law.

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