Mississippi Raids Expose Cracks in a Broken Immigration System

1280px-US_Immigration_and_Customs_Enforcement_arrest.jpg

In August of this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a slew of worksite raids in Mississippi, taking into custody nearly 700 people who were working illegally at companies that were supposed to be using E-Verify, the federal electronic work verification system. These recent events are a reminder that the United States immigration system is broken. We have no realistic pathway to legal residency for the estimated 12 to 14 million people in the country without documentation—and the longer we wait, the more otherwise innocent people like these poultry workers will be caught in the crossfire. We have a Congress that hasn’t solved the problem, and a presidential administration that’s making things worse.

We have employers who are struggling to fill open positions due to a tight labor market. However, we also have unscrupulous employers that take advantage of current immigration policy by intentionally hiring from the vulnerable ranks of undocumented workers: paying lower wages and maintaining poor working conditions in order to boost profits. 

Recent events in Mississippi, a mandatory E-Verify state, demonstrate just how the immigration system can be manipulated, both by employers acting in bad faith and by employees desperate to work. On August 7, 2019, hundreds of ICE agents descended upon seven food processing plants, all of whom participate in the E-Verify program. Within hours, ICE had arrested 680 workers—many of whom had young children at home—and charged them with working in the country under falsified documentation and signing a Form I-9 under a fraudulent identity. 

This was the largest ICE worksite enforcement action ever to have taken place in a single state. In the days and weeks following the raid, I waited to hear about the arrests of the managers and executives of these plants. After all, the employers themselves must have taken criminal actions if over 600 government agents were required to raid these sites. Instead, I only heard about the workers who were arrested—those workers who were trying to support their families, performing jobs that nobody on our campus would want to do.

Eventually, I was able to learn more. The raids not only exposed companies hiring workers without proper paperwork, but further exposed holes in the E-Verify program itself. Specifically, the raids exposed flaws in the system; for example, it cannot navigate around the issue of pervasive identity theft. The raids also demonstrated that E-Verify itself has no way to detect if employers violate the agreement with E-Verify and simply don’t run the identity check for certain employees. I was saddened to read the news stories about the devastation that affected Mississippi towns, and I was more sure than ever that the larger issue is a broken immigration system. 

The E-Verify program is an online system that electronically verifies the employment eligibility of newly-hired employees. A partnership between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA), E-Verify necessitates that employees present acceptable documents by their third day of employment. The system cross-checks Form I-9 information from DHS and SSA databases to verify work eligibility. So how did almost 700 undocumented individuals even get hired in a mandatory E-Verify state like Mississippi? 

Mississippi requires by law that “every employer shall register with and utilize the status verification system to verify the federal employment authorization status of all newly hired employees.” The August 7 raid uncovered employers who selectively ran only “certain” newly-hired employees through the verification system, according to representatives from the Department of Homeland Security. 

Where is the accountability? Severe consequences are necessary for employers who break the law and commit crimes to make a quick profit. Is this administration only focused on punishing people working physically demanding jobs for artificially low wages, often in poor conditions? If it is to effectively deter egregious corporate crimes, the government must sufficiently punish employers who participate in schemes to take advantage of, harbor, and transport unauthorized workers who are just trying to make a living. So, again, I ask: where are the arrests of the managers, supervisors, and executives that participated in the scheme? 

The Immigration Reform and Control Act has penalties for hiring and employing unlawful workers with civil fines ranging from $559-$22,927 per worker, but the circumstances at some of the Mississippi plants indicate that there should have been additional criminal indictments under federal law. According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services Associate Director of Immigration Records and Identity Services Directorate Tammy Meckley, these companies intentionally bypassed the E-Verify system. It is unclear from the news reports whether or not the companies even completed the standard employment eligibility forms. 

Even though penalties for non-compliance with E-Verify exist in the state of Mississippi, companies are rarely audited, and penalties are rarely enforced. Such penalties include the suspension of a business license and a disqualification to work on public contracts. And while there are criminal penalties for the employees, there are none for the employers. So it’s not surprising that the Mississippi state penalties, nor the threat of an ICE I-9 audit—even with a well-publicized increase in enforcement—was a strong enough deterrent for these employers. 

Why did the E-Verify system fail in Mississippi, and why is it failing elsewhere? There are both technical failures and intentional criminal actions. The system is susceptible to identity theft as it only compares photos or biometrics in certain limited queries such as green cards and US passports. In some cases, E-Verify has agreements with certain state motor vehicle departments where they share information but no photographs. This allows workers to obtain fake photo identification and stolen or illegally-purchased social security cards in order to pass through E-Verify without difficulty. They can even obtain actual government-issued documents.  

We are back to a simple question: if 680 employees were taken into custody over a month ago, how have we not heard anything about the indictment of their employers? Even more importantly, why are undocumented immigrants—who are doing dangerous, dirty jobs in poultry processing plants that most Americans are unwilling to do—the ones being punished? In general, an influx of immigrants would have little impact on the wages of native-born American workers. Families were torn apart on August 7, 2019, but the employers—who coordinated much of this illegal activity—have not suffered repercussions. At least, not yet. 

The Mississippi raids are a microcosm of the larger structural flaws in our immigration system: selective government enforcement, insufficient avenues to apply for residency, and mismatched incentives. Yet the Trump administration is talking about a mandatory nationwide E-Verify law. Don’t get me wrong, E-Verify is a good idea in theory, but it should not be mandatory until Congress addresses the issue of immigration reform. Congress has failed the American people. They have yet to pass critical immigration reform due to partisan politics. During the past two years, the administration has refocused the debate to the Southern border and clamped down on all immigration, legal or not. The dialogue has turned away from the reforms we need to stabilize, legalize, and account for America’s current large undocumented population. Companies should have to utilize status verification systems such as E-Verify in the future, but we need reform first. We must institute a new vehicle to manage a future flow of guest workers, a solution for our DREAMers, and a path to citizenship for the approximately 8 million people working unlawfully within the United States.

American citizens and legal residents need to speak up and give a voice to those caught up in the Mississippi raids and the millions of others working in the shadows—they are our neighbors, our friends, and our fellow students on campus. If we are to succeed as a nation of laws, we must make sure that our laws aren’t this flawed.