Raid underscores need for reform

By TIM KALICH GREENWOOD COMMONWEALTH,

As we’ve said earlier, the U.S. government should throw the book at any companies or managers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants. 

It’s hard to imagine, despite their early professions of ignorance, that those seven chicken-processing plants targeted in last week’s massive raid in Mississippi did not know they had hundreds of allegedly illegal immigrants on their payrolls. Prior to the raid, federal investigators told the courts that at least six of the plants “willfully” hired people they knew to be illegal.

If that’s true, why would employers do it? With the possibility of huge fines for the company and jail time for managers if they get caught, why would they take that risk?

There are several explanations, some less charitable than others.

One is that companies know they can get away with working illegals harder and paying them less, since the work — as physically demanding and unglamorous as it can be — provides a much better standard of living for their families than anything they can find in their home countries. Also, since these workers are in the United States illegally, they aren’t going to complain to authorities about workplace conditions.

A more forgiving explanation is that these kinds of jobs are not the ones native-born Americans want to do. The turnover rate at food-processing plants is very high, and keeping a plant fully staffed is difficult, especially at a time of low unemployment when most people who want to work already have a job. These plants may need foreign workers in order to operate at anywhere near full capacity, but the lack of immigration reform in this country keeps the plants from being able to find and hire them legally.

If Gov. Phil Bryant is right and there are 45,000 unfilled jobs in Mississippi, we should be happy to have Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and other folks from Central America working in jobs nobody else wants. This would require a great expansion in temporary legal work visas, especially work visas in states that are in need of economic expansion, such as Mississippi. But there is a stalemate in Congress over reform. The anti-immigration forces have blocked all efforts at expanding work visas, forcing industries to operate illegally or shut down. This is a shame for states such as Mississippi, where idled plants caused by labor shortages hurt local economies in desperate need for economic activity.

Several of the companies busted are busy trying to recruit new, legal employees. It will be interesting to see if the legal alternative employees are available and willing to work for what the job pays, or whether they will do it only for a short time while demanding higher wages that will translate into higher costs for consumers, or whether these companies will simply have to scale back production.

If companies didn’t hire illegals, fewer immigrants would sneak into the country or overstay their visas. By the same token, if Congress were to expand temporary work visas for labor-stressed industries so companies can operate and expand without breaking the law, fewer companies would do so.

Put that way, the problem is not so much the illegal immigrants or the companies that hire them, but rather congressional inaction that is creating this mess.

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