There are no whirring helicopters, law enforcement vehicles, or hundreds of federal agents swooping down on businesses as in days of old. Instead, such immigration raids have been replaced by a less overtly brutal approach: "silent" raids, or audits of work eligibility I-9 forms.
But the fear remains.
At the first whisper of an employer receiving notice from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that employees' eligibility records are about to be checked, pulses rise. Legal workers worry about being erroneously bounced out of work; unauthorized employees fear being kicked out of the country and separated from their families. Communities are shaken, business operations are disrupted, and jobs are lost. The anemic economy takes another hit.
In June, ICE revealed that it had recently sent 1,000 companies in all 50 states notices of pending I-9 audits -- and that, in the fiscal year that started Oct. 1, the agency had racked up 2,338 audits, handily exceeding the total for the entire previous year.
The auditing process was stepped up by the Obama administration in an attempt to show that it could enforce immigration laws in a more effective yet compassionate manner than the preceding Bush administration, whose high-profile raids focused on rounding up workers, not employers. "ICE may arrest workers we encounter, but arresting workers in and of itself is not a strategy or the goal of the program," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said.
But the current enforcement program misses its mark: Unscrupulous employers in the underground, cash economy largely escape detection. Meanwhile, hard workers are punished, rather than the "worst of the worst" criminals that the law enforcers would rather be chasing.
Remarkably, the I-9 audits do nothing to diminish the undocumented workforce. Instead, the workers often get bounced out of jobs where they contributed federal taxes, and add to the expansion of the underground economy, where low wages depress the pay for all U.S. workers.
Our standard economy suffers, and so do workers. In one Minnesota case, hundreds of Chipotle Mexican Grill employees were fired in the weeks before Christmas last year in the wake of an ICE audit. One can only imagine the anguish of families during what should have been a season of celebration. The business' legal costs also are rising, adding to the cost of operations.
That is what happens when the politics of fear turns into real fear for employers and, even more important, for their workers. Lost in the debate over this contentious political issue is the moral imperative to be just and compassionate to our neighbors and fellow workers.
Somehow, the public's preference for pragmatic solutions to our broken immigration system, solutions that reflect our nation's values, needs to break through the political stagnation that pits one interest against the other so that no one wins.
The enforcement-only approach has become a bludgeon in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform. To replace this system in which everyone loses, Congress must enact a comprehensive immigration reform law -- one that includes not only enforcement, but also a revamped visa system that meets the needs of the labor force and allows families to remain together, and a tough but pragmatic program for legalizing the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. With such reform, workers will not be unfairly punished, good employers will not be turned into immigration enforcement officers, and our economy will be able to grow for the benefit of all U.S. taxpayers.
Gebe Martinez is communications coordinator for the Immigrant Justice Campaign of the Service Employees International Union. She previously worked as a journalist covering politics and policy.