Thursday, January 4, 2007

U.S. invites illegal behavior in immigrants


WASHINGTON -- Much has been said about using identity theft laws to round up illegal immigrants in the six-state raid at Swift & Co. meat processing plants. Some observers said it was the long-awaited application of the full weight of U.S. statutes to curb what has become an old practice among immigrants. For others it was a sinister and untimely crackdown on an immigration violation normally considered a misdemeanor.

But I say it is a big disappointment all around. People whose intention was to get work used stolen information, such as Social Security numbers. U.S. officials intending to do their jobs used a law meant for a far more serious crime as justification for the crackdown. Both sides are guilty of weakening the rule of law -- a taste of home we Latino immigrants really could do without.

Unpredictability, inefficiency, corruption, abuse and impunity -- all are attributes of lawlessness that plague the nations most immigrants leave behind. In Latin America, weak rule of law discourages investment, generates instability and disrupts economic activity, keeping the region firmly stuck in the "developing" world.

The social toll is also dramatic. A judicial system that seems arbitrary erodes people's confidence. A general distrust of laws and lawmakers feeds a quaint irreverence that results in justice being denied. Most people do their best to get by in a flawed system. Others flout it. And yet others leave it all behind and head north.

That's when a culture that believes in laws and one that distrusts them suddenly collide. If you live in a U.S. community with an increasing influx of immigrants, you may have seen that clash play out not far from your doorstep.

You may have already come across the immigrant contractor remodeling a house across the street without all the required permits, or Latinos going to jobs in the back of a pickup. Maybe you've also heard about those who use someone else's Social Security number to gain employment.

Back home, those actions would carry little consequence. But here, sooner or later, the contractor will find an official notice halting all construction until the paperwork is in place. The pickup driver will be stopped and fined. And as it occurred last week, workers detained in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Utah will be charged with identity theft -- a felony that could land them in prison.

"They are not aware that they are stealing somebody's identity," said Jose Barillas, Guatemala's consul in Texas, who has been talking to many of those detained, their families and their co-workers. "All they did was to borrow a Social Security number to be able to work."

Their problem is that under U.S. law, ignorance does not excuse a violation and there is no such thing as "borrowing" somebody else's identity.

Initially, only 65 of the 1,282 rounded up faced criminal charges, including identify theft. By early last week that number had more than doubled to 144 and U.S. officials insist that as the investigation continues, more workers could be charged. "These were not victimless crimes," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, adding that hundreds of U.S. citizens and legal residents have suffered the consequences of this practice.

Without excusing those who committed fraud to get jobs, it is important to make clear that the U.S. government, its businesses and even its laws invite this type of behavior. Writing in The Washington Post, Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute, has noted that "every year the economy as a whole creates about 500,000 more unskilled jobs than Americans want to do, yet we issue only 5,000 year-round visas for the immigrants who might fill them."

If levels of population growth continue as they are today, 40 percent of the next 100 million people in this country will come from abroad.

Just as today, they will be coming to do jobs that the U.S. native work force is not doing but that will need to be filled if the U.S. economy is to grow at its current pace.

Whether many of those jobs will continue to be filled by immigrants working here illegally will depend on what Congress does in the coming year. A proper reform could reward more immigrants who play by the rules. Or, by inaction, Congress will continue to maintain a system that enjoys and profits from immigrant labor, yet seeks to punish immigrants when they dare fill those vacancies.

That is the kind of arbitrariness immigrants know too well, but it is also the kind unworthy of a nation of laws.