by Josh T. Smith, Research Manager
Posted August 15, 2019 In Scholar Commentary

This article was originally posted on the Medium publication The Benchmark

Last week President Trump’s administration executed the largest immigration raid in the previous decade. With a total of 680 people arrested, the raids throughout six Mississippi cities will leave permanent marks.

The raids hit an especially emotional note as August 7 also marked the first day of school. Children emerged from classes to find relatives or family friends waiting for them at the school because their parents had been detained. Videos of children pleading with immigration agents to let them see their parents circulated across social media.

At a fundamental level, the scale of the recent raid should provoke questions about reforming the immigration process so that such raids are unnecessary. Substantial costs are stemming from immigration enforcement that weigh heavily against its intended goals. Immigration enforcement is meant to improve public safety and protect US workers and companies from unfair competition by companies that are willing to break immigration rules. But the unintended consequences of immigration raids may be making those problems worse.

In many ways, these kinds of raids may be detrimental to protecting public safety and US workers, especially when compared to immigration reforms that would make raids obsolete.

Why do these raids happen?
As Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Acting Director Matt Albence said of the raids, “These are not new laws, nor is the enforcement of them new.” The raids are organized by ICE, an office within the Department of Homeland Security and take years of planning. Newly released court documents related to the search warrants used during the recent Mississippi raid show that as far back as 2014, ICE was monitoring individuals they suspected were illegally hired.

The focus of these raids is on arresting workers and penalizing employers who hire individuals who are not authorized to work in the US. They are unrelated to criminal records of any of the individuals arrested.

In a press release about the raids in Mississippi, ICE lists a variety of motivations for raiding the six cities:

These laws help protect jobs for U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. residents, eliminate unfair competitive advantages for companies that unlawfully hire an illegal workforce, and strengthen public safety and national security.

A common statement by ICE representatives in the face of public backlash to the raids echoes Albence’s comments that ICE is just enforcing existing laws. After being shown a video of a child crying while asking ICE agents to let her see her mother, Albence went so far as to blame the parents for “placing their children in this situation.”

Others assigned blame to the companies who hired immigrants without proper documentation or authorization to work. Importantly, this accusation gets closer to the economic reasons behind the raids. As in many other states, businesses in Mississippi reach out to immigrants to fill jobs that would otherwise sit open. Mississippi’s population has declined for three of the last four years, and the remaining population in the state is aging quickly. Immigrants represent a sorely needed supply of workers that help keep the state’s economy moving.

Better immigration rules can make raids obsolete
Raids can’t alleviate the pressures that push businesses to hire workers illegally. But a series of changes to immigration laws can.

First, there should be more legal avenues for employers to find and hire workers from outside of the US. One option is charging potential immigrants or their employers a tariff for hiring immigrants. This is a policy option forwarded by Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy expert at the Cato Institute. A tariff charged to immigrants for working in the US could fund public programs or pay down the national debt. Some immigration experts have even suggested that such a system could form a compromise to pay for President Trump’s desired wall.

Another option, one that is likely to do more to improve the US economy than a wall, would be funding the reskilling of American workers. A central concern of immigration skeptics is that more immigrants would mean more competition for low-skilled Americans. Although the research suggests that such worries are outsized from their real impact on native workers, paying for reskilling programs through an immigration tariff could alleviate these worries and provide needed workers for US businesses.

Another potential policy is the heartland visa program. This would create a visa that states could opt-in to honor. The visa would allow immigrants to come and work, but only in the areas that have agreed to operate the visa program. For states like Mississippi that face declining populations on top of declining workforce populations, the heartland visa could be a simple fix.

Both of these policies provide promising solutions to the root of why immigration raids like those in Mississippi happen. Many employers need additional workers, or even just seasonal workers, to operate. Allowing those additional workers would be a boon to these states and the US economy as a whole.

Raids should change too
Aside from immigration policies that let more people in, enforcement policies should change also.

First, law enforcement should focus on violent criminals. The overlap between immigrants and criminals is minuscule. Data from the Brookings Institution show that US citizens are more likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes than immigrants. Still, immigration enforcement should focus on people involved in violent crime and not on those who are merely working and supporting a family.

Forgoing worksite raids in favor of focusing on violent crime improves immigration enforcement in two ways. First, shifting resources away from other criminal investigations to track down immigrants with minor or non-violent criminal records could be counterproductive to improving public safety. As immigration researchers Annie Laurie Hines and Giovanni Peri of UC Davis point out, “A decline in community policing, or the reallocation of police resources from preventing serious crime to apprehending immigrants with minor criminal records, could increase crime rates.”

In Hines and Peri’s study, they find that ICE raids did not improve public safety or open up job opportunities for natives, which lends greater credence to the need for immigration reform than continued raids for achieving the stated goals of US immigration policy.

Second, immigration enforcement can undermine public trust of law enforcement in immigrant communities and so result in suspicious behavior going unreported. In particular, this may affect individuals who are victims of domestic violence.

For example, ICE detained a woman in El Paso County who was seeking protection from alleged domestic abuse. She was brought to a court hearing by the Center Against Sexual and Family Violence, a group based in El Paso. As NPR reported the event, ICE agents detained her as soon as the judge granted a protective order against her alleged abuser. An attorney for El Paso County told reporters that she believes the woman was set up by the abuser, although an ICE spokesperson said that the tip came from another law enforcement agency. Events like this make people hesitant to report abuse and so may increase rates of unreported violence.

Immigration reforms are more promising than continued raids
Stories of ICE detaining people at work or while seeking protection through the US legal system reveal the importance of reforming the US immigration system. There’s an immense human toll on immigrant communities because of the enforcement of immigration policies. This is worsened by the fact that the raids are unlikely to achieve their goals of protecting US citizens from violence or helping American workers. Instead, both of these goals of public safety and helping Americans face a new world of work could be better served through effective immigration reform.

Policymakers should look at reforming immigration laws to bring more workers to US businesses legally. By removing the root cause of why companies hire undocumented workers, reforms like these can reduce the human toll of these raids while improving the US economy.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.