This week, Department of Homeland Security agents, as many as 1,000 of them, raided Swift & Company meatpacking plants in six states, arresting approximately 1,300 individuals suspected of a variety of immigration violations. Illegal Immigration and the Limitations of "Basic Pilot"

This week, Department of Homeland Security agents, as many as 1,000 of them, raided Swift & Company meatpacking plants in six states, arresting approximately 1,300 individuals suspected of a variety of immigration violations.

Sixty-five of those arrested face criminal charges, including identity theft, which, according to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, was the primary focus of the raids, following a 10-month investigation.  At a press conference, Chertoff said, "This is not only a case about illegal immigration, which is bad enough.  It's a case about identity theft and violation of the privacy rights and the economic rights of innocent Americans."

Of the hundreds of citizens whose identities were stolen, Chertoff said, "These individuals suffered real consequences in their lives.  These are not victimless crimes."

The number of those arrested represents nearly 10 percent of Swift's workforce, forcing a temporary shutdown of the company's domestic plants.  While pledging aggressive action against the identity-theft aspect of illegal immigration, Chertoff also acknowledged the impact that such massive enforcement activities will have on employers and aspects of our economy. 

"Obviously, when, even unwittingly, a business is significantly built on illegal labor, once we enforce the law, that's going to have a ripple effect," Chertoff was quoted as saying.

For its part, Swift & Company has not been charged and, for years, has reportedly used a federal database program, named Basic Pilot, in efforts to avoid hiring illegal workers.

Basic Pilot has been called "an effective and employer-friendly tool for immigration law compliance" and was prominently touted by President Bush in a highly publicized visit to a Dunkin' Donuts store last summer.  The program has also been cited in variations of immigration reform legislation before Congress.

While reliance on the government program should provide some level of demonstrated compliance by employers, the Swift & Company case (while far from complete and thus subject to considerable further analysis) almost certainly indicates significant flaws.

Clearly, the program, as currently constructed and administered, is unable to flag cases when a social security number is being used both legitimately and illegitimately at the same time.  The massive arrests at Swift & Company would appear to signal problems far beyond that.

Swift & Company is up at arms over the disruption of its business, but the company's cooperation with the government is also being questioned.  Other businesses are on edge because of the strong warning that Secretary Chertoff acknowledges is intended, with future raids promised.

This country's problems with illegal immigration are now decades old, representing an abject long-term failure of the federal government to enforce existing laws.  While there are significant national security issues implicit in identity theft by illegals, it is still disconcerting to have 1,000 federal agents, who are desperately needed elsewhere, involved in busting meatpacking plants.  The alternative, unfortunately, is an even bigger mess than we now have, and Basic Pilot seems woefully inadequate in guiding employers over the dangerous shoals of hiring illegals.

December 14, 2006
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