Working on immigration

Congressional Republicans will not — and should not — succeed in persuading the Obama administration to resume workplace raids to detain and deport illegal immigrants.

The administration has been effectively enforcing immigration laws without recourse to such raids, which have disrupted families and resulted in the detention of immigrants for minor offenses such as carrying a forged driver’s license or using a fraudulent Social Security number. Instead, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has concentrated its resources on apprehending immigrants accused of serious crimes and fining employers that encourage illegal immigration by continuing to hire undocumented workers.

As Times staff writer Brian Bennett reported, the Obama administration has quadrupled the number of employer audits and fined businesses $6.9 million in fiscal 2010, compared with $675,000 in 2008. Deportations are also up, from 369,221 in 2008 to 392,862 in fiscal 2010. More than 195,000 criminals were deported in 2010, a 70% increase over 2008. These numbers suggest that the administration is not under-enforcing immigration laws, as Republicans claim, but has set reasonable priorities and is pursuing them.

The fact remains that the administration’s selective enforcement of the law, defensible as it is on fiscal and humanitarian grounds, feeds a narrative that the administration and Democrats in general don’t really object to illegal immigration and that “comprehensive reform” is a Trojan horse for open borders. Though some who make this argument may be dismissed as racists or xenophobes, other Americans with no ulterior motives are skeptical about whether reformers are serious about enforcement. That impression complicates the effort to reach compromise in Congress.


Several polls suggest that a majority of Americans support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants already living in this country. But other polls demonstrate that enforcement is also vital. For example, several surveys indicate majority support for Arizona’s controversial law requiring police to determine the immigration status of people they stop for other reasons whom they suspect are in the country illegally.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform, and said he was ready to work with Republicans and Democrats “to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows.” If the president and other advocates of reform are to succeed, they must emphasize border protection and enforcement as well as legalization.

“Comprehensive” reform must be just that: a combination of legalization for immigrants already in the country and new measures to prevent illegal immigration in the future.