The Border at Work

The year was 2007. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) performed a sudden raid at a factory in New Bedford, Mass., that sewed rucksacks and ammunition pouches for the U.S. military. Despite a local unemployment rate of 9.4 percent, the factory owners had recruited unauthorized Central American immigrants, provided them with phony identification papers, paid them the minimum wage or less, manipulated records to deny overtime pay, and imposed sweatshop conditions including $20 fines for bathroom breaks longer than two minutes. “Now I understand how they kept outbidding me,” said a competitor.

Nonetheless, a storm of protest erupted against ICE and its heavy-handed enforcement operation, which had traumatized children as it separated them from their anguished parents. Senator Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) condemned it as “a government operation distinguished by its callousness.” Two officials of the American Civil Liberties Union likened it to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.

Today, in the aftermath of President Trump’s similarly strenuous campaign to stem the flow of Central Americans across the Rio Grande, leading Democrats are calling for ICE to be abolished completely. Senator Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) has suggested that immigration enforcement is the work of racist bigots. “We have to stop vilifying and criminalizing whole populations of people because they came and arrived here from south of the border!” she proclaimed last year. Meanwhile Trump, while declaring an urgent need for a wall across the Mexican border, has shown scant interest in repairing the virtual wall around the American jobs market that Congress long ago promised but has abjectly failed to deliver.

Every feature of the widening gyre that is the modern immigration debate — outrage, efforts to delegitimize all enforcement, a pro-enforcement backlash that sometimes targets all immigration, and a political environment that smothers efforts to find common ground — is a result of the colossal failure of the last major immigration-reform law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Known as IRCA, it stands as one of the most consequential failures of governance in our recent history, and we cannot understand how we got ourselves in this mess unless we understand how IRCA failed to earn its ambitious name.

When President Ronald Reagan signed IRCA into law, he confidently predicted that “future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders.” Passed by an exhausted Congress after five years of rancorous debate, the reform was widely touted as a wise and moderate compromise. It combined the compassion of amnesty with a plan to stop future illegal immigration by requiring employers to verify that new hires were authorized to work.


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