Members of The Workplace Project, along with immigrants and other...

Members of The Workplace Project, along with immigrants and other reform groups, rally on Friday, May 1, 2009, in Hempstead, for President Barack Obama to build a path to citizenship. Credit: NEWSDAY/Photo by Howard Schnapp

Kavitha Rajagopalan is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.


The Obama administration may speak softly about illegal immigrants, but it certainly does wield a big stick.

So far this year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has audited more than 2,300 U.S. companies for employees' immigration status, more such audits than have taken place in any previous fiscal year. Like the controversial Secure Communities programs, these audits are part of a broader move on the administration's part to fully enforce existing immigration policies in a way that previous administrations have failed to do. Rather than the once random and even arbitrary immigration raids and deportations of the past, immigration enforcement under President Barack Obama is far more systemic and widespread.

Obama has taken a far tougher stance on immigration than his predecessor, all in a presumed bid to garner support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Like President George W. Bush before him, Obama has openly voiced his support for such reform measures as a path to legalization and an overhaul of the current, broken immigration and naturalization process.

But given the vitriol surrounding immigration reform these days, such legislation would likely meet with about as much political goodwill and spirit of bipartisan compromise as the recent debt ceiling talks. Meantime, the clock is running out to come up with ways to stimulate the economy, which immigrant labor -- both legal and illegal -- can do.

Immigration experts have long pointed out that reforms that ease the naturalization process for legal immigrants and provide a path to legalization for illegal immigrants could provide a sorely needed transfusion of skills and innovation, tax revenue and investment, and community revitalization. Programs like the large-scale audits weaken businesses. Some may lose out on productivity while they try to recruit and train new workers. Others may have difficulty finding legal workers willing to take the jobs they have.

The audits also force thousands of illegal immigrants out of stable jobs -- where, despite widespread misconceptions, they pay into our vulnerable entitlement programs -- and deeper into the shadow economy.

Some argue that illegal immigrants are breaking the rules by being here in the first place and should by all means be fired -- especially if this opens up jobs for unemployed citizens and legal immigrants. While any and all job-creation measures should be supported and advanced, forcing existing employees out of jobs en masse is never healthy or stimulative.

Instead, mass layoffs of legal and illegal workers alike often place strains on local communities -- increasing foreclosure rates, reducing spending and investment in local businesses, pushing children away from higher education and into jobs.

There are currently 11 million long-term undocumented immigrants living and largely employed in the United States, and the consequences of efforts to unemploy and or deport them could be devastating. While this round of audits won't unemploy them all, it will force many to work off the books in homes and small businesses -- for even lower wages and with less stability than before (not to mention the loss of their contributions to entitlement programs).

Is creating a permanent underclass of informal workers really good for the country?

It is time to take a hard look at the communities and companies in which illegal immigrants live and work. Will they be destabilized by aggressive immigration enforcement in the years before any meaningful reforms can be sold to their adamant and vocal opponents? And if these much-needed reforms ever do see their way into legislation, will they be too late to make up for the damage that will have been done?

The majority of undocumented immigrants are not an encroaching horde, but rather an existing and long-standing part of our society. Forcing them out of mainstream jobs will only grow the shadow economy and undermine healthy economic growth. And this would be like cutting off your arms to spite your body.