The search for illegal workers

W hen it comes to illegal immigration, the Trump administration is doing one thing right, and it has nothing to do with building a wall at the Mexican border.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said this week that it has audited 2,282 companies in the last seven months, searching for employees who are not authorized to work in the United States. An ICE official said that another wave of audits planned for this summer will push the total number of investigations well over 5,000 by the end of September.

If that happens, it will be a threefold increase in audits from the prior 12 months. The work appears to be paying off: Since last October, nearly 600 employers have been arrested on criminal immigration charges.

A similar number face civil immigration violations.

Short of a nasty recession that eliminates millions of jobs, the best way to discourage illegal immigration is not to round up people along the border. It is to get after the owners and the managers of the companies who have been doing the off-the-books hiring of illegal immigrants in an effort to reduce their labor costs.

Look at it this way: It is hard to blame anybody in poverty in Mexico or Central America who tries to sneak into the United States. They have little to lose, and the possible reward is a far better life.

The larger problem is with the employers who willingly break the law by hiring illegal immigrants. Remove the incentive of work and you are sure to decrease the number of people entering the country without permission.

An advocate for small and medium-sized businesses has a point when he said greater enforcement of immigration laws could hurt some companies when labor markets are tight. He makes a better point in noting that there are sure to be some illegal workers whose documentation looked good but turned out to be fake.

Hopefully the ICE auditors will be able to tell the difference between a company that got fooled into allowing a few illegal workers onto the payroll; and one that willingly hired a large number of them and tried to conceal it.

The only way to drive home the point is to go after top managers. For example, many of the ICE audits in the past few months started after employee interviews at about 100 7-Eleven convenience stores. Anybody who thinks store managers were doing the hiring without their supervisors’ consent is naive.

ICE says it is developing plans to conduct 15,000 employer audits annually. It also has stepped up efforts to deport people here illegally.

This is a difficult, divisive subject. ICE should be firm and fair without being mean and cold-hearted. And it is wishful thinking to say that the government should round up all 12 million illegal immigrants and ship them out.

The better idea is to look forward with the goal of discouraging illegal immigration. A few high-profile “perp walks” of executives who either ordered or condoned wrongful hiring might be what’s needed to get the message across.