“We are taking work-site enforcement very hard. Not only are we going to prosecute the employers who knowingly hire the illegal aliens, we are going to detain and remove the illegal alien workers,” said Thomas Homan, the director of ICE, during a speech in October. Last week, it appeared that his promise bore fruit: federal agents raided dozens of 7-11s to enforce laws that prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers.
The raids indicate a shift in the way that the Trump administration will take a hard line against immigrants (a flawed position that we’ve reported on multiple times). The primary goal of these raids, according to both critics and proponents, is to make unauthorized workers afraid to come to work.
In short, it’s a message to the surrounding community that undocumented immigrants aren’t welcome.
Why Workplace Raids Makes the Immigration Situation Worse
The last time the government conducted workplace raids was when George W. Bush was president. Then (like now), federal agencies came up against the limited power of workplace raids to effect any benefits. Ultimately, businesses receive hardly any penalties for hiring undocumented workers.
Technically, the law states that employers need to “ensure documents look valid.” As a result, it’s nearly impossible to prove a business knowingly hired unauthorized workers. The lack of meaningful penalties for businesses meant many of them simply calculated federal fines as part of operational costs.
Moreover, businesses and communities almost always put pressure on local representatives as soon as immigration enforcement rolls into town. When Bush authorized workplace raids, it resulted in hundreds of arrests and workers who didn’t return to work—but it was businesses who complained.
It’s Workers Who Pay the Price
The issue is that the main victim of workplace raids aren’t employers—it’s people. Doris Meissner, the former head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, spoke on record to say that workplace raids don’t work. They constrict the local economies because undocumented immigrants are still consumers. They allow businesses to operate and put money back into their communities.
When ICE makes immigrants afraid to go to work, local businesses grind to a halt. Even worse, unscrupulous employers gain power. Last year, unauthorized workers who were abused by their employers (i.e. denied pay or overtime, forced to work long hours) made fewer claims for restitution than in 2016—despite the fact that it’s their right to demand back pay.
Intimidated workers are less likely to report abuse, allowing bad employers to take advantage of them and rob them of their wages. This makes the situation worse for workers and the local community, who rely on workers to have strong wages in order to survive.
Farms May Be Next
Oscar Renteria, the owner of a company that manages vineyards in Napa, believes the result of an ICE raid on his business would be catastrophic. He already had to advise his workers to avoid 7-11 during the recent raids. Renteria’s concerned that ICE raids would deplete the region of nearly half of the labor force—over 50% of California’s agricultural workers lack work permits.
Ultimately, this is why workplace raids will always fail: they don’t address the root cause of immigration. “When your laws don’t align with the market,” Meissner said, “then the market is always going to win.”
As long as hotels, farms, and meatpackers lack labor, they will continue to hire undocumented workers. These workers, if living under fear, won’t self-deport like proponents predict—they’ll simply uproot their families and move to where the work is. It’s costly for them, it’s costly for local communities, and it’s costly for the ethical fabric of the nation.
In the meantime, workplace raids create distrust of the federal government—a far worse long-term issue than workers without work permits.