The U.S. government and Congress play their own version of Whac-a-Mole when it comes to immigration. The results are about the same as when people play with mallets and pop-up moles at an arcade: lots of noise, mindless excitement and no productivity. Smack a mallet in one place and up pops a mole elsewhere. The players can toss dollars at the game and pound themselves into a frenzy but never really win.
Whac-an-Immigrant has been through many incarnations. There has been -- whack! -- the border blockade strategy begun in the 1990s. The effort, known as Operation Gatekeeper in California, Operation Hold-the-Line in Texas, and Operation Safeguard in Arizona, concentrated border patrol agents in cities, driving migrants into remote regions of the desert. Travel became harder, smuggling networks became stronger and thousands of migrants died in the American desert. The visceral drive for a better life exceeded the will to keep the stranger out, and the immigrants still came.
Then -- whack! -- came the border enforcement expansion of the past decade, in which the number of Border Patrol agents tripled, a failed high-tech monitoring system was deployed and a border fence built. A fence built between the United States and Mexico caused ecological havoc but barely slowed the immigrant flow. The immigrants still came, and those already here were deterred from returning home.
Then -- whack! -- there were employment raids, with hardworking men and women corralled in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, known as ICE. That created a chilling trauma not only for the workers ensnared but also their children waiting for supper. The ICE raids tear families apart, deport parents and effectively create orphans of babies born in the Land of the Free. Yet, heart-wrenching as the raids might be, ICE still could not dissuade desperate people from seeking a better life. The immigrants remained and still others came.
Then -- whack! -- came efforts to get at the children, many of whom grew up in the United States and know only the language of their adopted homeland, English. They may be hardworking and bright, and the nation may have wittingly or unwittingly invested in 12 or more years of schooling in them, but the government still deports them, and the law still opts to keep them from college by rejecting the legislative proposal known as the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), which some still promote, would give permanent residence to certain undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools, show good moral character, came to the U.S. legally or illegally as minors and have been here continuously for at least five years before the bill's enactment. Going after these children is cruel, but they courageously came out of the shadows and now walk the halls of Congress advocating for a chance to become citizens.
Now comes E-Verify -- whack! -- a proposal to mandate that employers check Social Security numbers against federal databases, to ensure that potential employees are authorized to work. E-Verify currently is a failing voluntary system, where it misses more than 50 percent of the people it is supposed to catch. Make it mandatory and its error rate likely will rise. And immigrants will remain in the workplace, working off the books in an underground economy. Meanwhile, where are we while the government plays Whac-a-Mole?
Congress spent $117 billion on immigration enforcement initiatives from 2000 to 2010, and the number of undocumented immigrants grew from 7 million to 11.2 million. About 8 million, or 70 percent, of them are in the U.S. labor force, many working in low-skilled jobs that Americans won't pursue. Each year an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 more enter the country. As the country cracks down, the immigrants go further into the shadows. They still are in the workforce but open to inhumane exploitation by unscrupulous employers. This degradation demeans our nation and its people and flies against the fairness we Americans believe is part of our national character.
It is clear that we need immigration reform, but we need a reform that acknowledges the reality we face. There are millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. workforce now. We need them. There are young students with potential and drive. We need them, too. As a nation where immigrants historically have had a fair chance and been treated humanely, we need to give up Whac-a-Mole and devise one comprehensive policy, including a legalization plan, born of our current reality and sense of decency. Whac-a-Mole doesn't get results anywhere. It just creates a lot of noise and frustration.