Workplace Immigration Raids Not a Cure-All

When they’re debating immigration policy, Americans do like to cling to their favorite myths.

This one has quite a following: "Workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement intrinsically benefit the U.S. labor market by removing illegal workers and forcing employers to hire American workers as replacements by paying higher wages." The sidecar argument is this: "There are scores of U.S. workers who are waiting on the sidelines, champing at the bit to do the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs society has to offer if only they could get employers to pay a fair and livable wage."

While not always pleasing to the eye, especially when families are split up and children are left behind, workplace raids are an appropriate, necessary, and defensible way of combating illegal immigration by targeting the source of the problem: the employer.

Yet these raids are not a magic elixir that cures all that ails the U.S. workforce. When immigration agents storm a meatpacking plant in Iowa, a chicken-processing company in Arkansas, or a peach orchard in California and haul off hundreds of illegal immigrant workers, it can change the workforce, the wage structure, even the working conditions. If employers have to pay higher wages to replace illegal workers, they might indeed attract U.S. workers -- for a time. That was the point of a recent article in USA Today, which suggested that U.S. workers automatically benefit from immigration raids.

Still, at the end of the day, workplace raids don’t change who we are as a people. Nor do they change our values, our upbringing, and our relationship to work. Before long, replacement workers will recall why they didn't take those jobs in the first place. That is, because they're hard, dirty, or dangerous. And before long, many of them will quit. And the employer will be back at square one, trying to entice workers who don't really want to work there -- at any wage.