The depressing futility of ICE workplace raids

The depressing futility of ICE workplace raids
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This Wednesday, agents from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement raided seven work sites — mostly meat processing plants — across the state of Mississippi, rounding up 680 illegal immigrants.

Yet within a few weeks, those plants almost certainly will be staffed with a new group of undocumented workers once again.

That’s because workplace raids, like almost all of our public policies that purport to address the problem of illegal immigration — mass deportation, increased border security, a border wall — do nothing to address the deeper factors that spur undocumented immigration. Indeed, trying to fix the problem of undocumented migration by rounding up and deporting immigrants is like putting a Band-Aid on a patient with pneumonia.


Deportation doesn’t work because undocumented immigration is an international phenomenon that, in the U.S., has developed as a direct result of two major factors. The first is our economy, which demands the cheapest possible labor, especially in the service and agricultural sectors. The second is the political and economic situation in many of the migrants’ countries of origin, which are often plagued with abysmal poverty, political instability and endemic violence.

To better understand the first factor — why our economy demands cheap labor — look at Mississippi again. Several of the raided worksites were poultry processing plants, where working conditions are challenging (line operators must stand in frigid warehouses, slicing and packaging raw meat all day) and the pay is around $12 to $15 per hour. For those wages, native-born workers are unwilling to take such jobs and, as a result, the entire U.S. meat industry employs undocumented immigrants, who are willing to work for less money. From beef stockyards to hog farms to poultry plants, roughly one-third of meatpacking workers are immigrants, and at least 10-15 percent of them — and many more in some locations — are undocumented.

Yet our demand for cheap meat won’t go away. Most Americans are carnivores — and we expect our meat to remain relatively affordable. If meatpacking plants were to raise wages, they also would have to raise the cost of meat, which would be unpopular with consumers.

Without comprehensive immigration reform that either requires employers to hire exclusively legal workers or legalizes cheap migrant labor, the laws of supply and demand will ensure that employers will continue to hire from the population of at least 11.3 million undocumented migrants in the United States.

And despite the deportation raids, the threat of family separation and detention, and the ever-more dangerous conditions for migrants crossing the border, the population of undocumented migrant laborers in this country remains fairly stable. Why?


Here, we need to look at the other factor behind mass undocumented immigration: what’s happening in migrants’ home countries. In parts of Mexico and Central America, currently the largest regional source of undocumented immigrants to the United States, people are experiencing the effects of unchecked gang violence, endemic poverty, broken families, political and religious violence, and climate change. On top of that, many people have longstanding family connections to the United States and relatives willing to help them get across the border. As a result, there is a growing number of people desperate to come here and seek stable jobs and a safer life.

Many of them know quite well that they risk imprisonment or detention in the United States — and injury or death in the borderlands — but they make the rational calculation that taking those risks is better than living with the conditions at home. And they will continue to make that choice as long as those dire conditions at home persist.

So we can be fairly certain that, within a few weeks, the same Mississippi meatpacking plants will put out the word that they’re hiring and a new crop of undocumented immigrants will take the jobs vacated by those recently rounded up. After all, such raids have happened many times before (and not just under President TrumpDonald TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers MORE).

Nothing will change that picture as long as the underlying factors — our economy’s demand for cheap labor, and conditions in other countries that push desperate people to emigrate — go unaddressed.

So what would fix the problem? There are many possible answers, but none of them is simple, and all of them require bipartisan cooperation. In the U.S., we must implement comprehensive reform to fix our broken immigration laws, crack down systematically on employers who hire undocumented workers, and consider raising wages so that U.S. citizens are more willing to take so-called “undesirable” jobs. Abroad, we must work with Mexico and Central America to increase stability and economic opportunity in migrant-sending countries so that people there want to stay home.

U.S. presidencies run in four-year cycles, and the underlying economic and political causes of mass undocumented migration cannot be fixed in just four years. Deportation raids, walls along the border, and increased border security are more immediate and flashy responses, however superficial and ineffective. And so politicians sell these policies to frustrated voters as easy solutions, as they have for decades.

If nothing changes, we Americans will continue to eat our cheap chicken, and the deportation raids — which do nothing to stop undocumented immigration, but do a lot to destroy the lives of undocumented immigrants and their children — will continue unabated.

Julia G. Young is an associate professor of history at The Catholic University of America, where she writes and teaches about the history of migration from Latin America. Follow her on Twitter @juliagyoung.