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Getting Tough Without Getting Smart

The administration of President George W. Bush wanted to show that it was tough on illegal immigration but ended up just being tough on immigrants.

Government agents swooped into factories and farms, rounded up undocumented workers and shipped them off to American versions of Siberia where they waited to be deported. Families were torn apart and workers’ dependents were left to fend for themselves.

The Obama folk do things differently. Instead of going after undocumented workers, they want to take on the businesses that hire them. Officials now will fight their battles with civil complaints and fines.

“Now all manner of companies face the very real possibility that the government, using our basic civil powers, is going to come knocking on the door,” said John T. Morton, who runs the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) in the Department of Homeland Security.

The new policy may be more humane, but it isn’t much smarter.

Fearing the new regime of fines, the Los Angeles-based clothing manufacturer American Apparel announced recently that it would fire about 1,800 employees, nearly a fifth of its total workforce. The firings were prompted by a federal investigation that revealed irregularities in documents the workers presented when they were hired.

In July, ICE opened 654 similar investigations at companies across the country. The American Apparel case began 17 months ago, before President Obama took office, but it ended up giving his officials an early chance to show how they will deal with people who break our laws to support themselves and their families.

Morton said he hopes to “change the practices of American employers as a class” by creating “a truly national deterrent” to hiring undocumented workers.

However, the employees who lost jobs at American Apparel, and others who face similar dismissals, are not likely to return to their countries of origin, at least not if they can find employers in the United States who are less fastidious about complying with labor laws.

One American Apparel employee who had worked his way up from a factory job to an office position told The New York Times: “Being realistic, I guess I’m going to have to go to one of those sweatshop companies where I’m going to get paid under the table.”

Companies that flout the law will be rewarded with a steady stream of cheap labor while legitimate employers are forced to fire large segments of their work force. U.S. citizens and legal residents are unlikely to fill those vacancies. Despite all the posturing about illegals who take jobs from solid citizens, Americans have shown little interest in working in garment factories, meatpacking plants and farm fields. At least not while unemployment and other government benefits are available.

The message to legitimate employers is that it just does not pay to try to bring work Stateside when the people who really want to do that work are overseas. If workers cannot come to the work, the work will have to go to the workers. Forget about trying to revive domestic manufacturing, or to provide work for less-educated workers. If American Apparel moves its production overseas, the 80 percent of its workers who are legal residents can kiss their jobs goodbye.

It is particularly sad that the Obama administration chose American Apparel as its first big target. Since its inception, American Apparel has tried to prove that it is possible to make clothing in the United States while treating workers fairly. The company’s facility in Los Angeles is the largest garment factory in the United States. American Apparel reported $545 million in total sales in 2008 and pays its sewing operators around $12 an hour, according to its Web site.

The company offers its workers subsidized health care, transportation, meals, and English classes that enable new immigrants to become productive contributors to the national economy.

But, if Washington cannot come up with a realistic and humane program to legalize workers who are already in the country and to allow those who want to come here to do so legally, pretty soon the apparel may be American in name only.

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