Process the whole problem

Meat processing is nasty, noxious, dangerous work—just the kind that attracts illegal immigrants willing to do the jobs Americans won’t do. Little wonder, then, that when more than a thousand federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents launched a dawn raid on six Swift & Co. meat-packing plants Dec. 13, they arrested some 1,300 undocumented Latino workers, nearly 10 percent of Swift’s workforce, temporarily shutting down all six plants.

It’s tempting to blame Swift, the nation’s second-largest beef and pork processor, for hiring so many illegals, but it wouldn’t be entirely fair to do so. In fact, Swift has largely obeyed the rules, checking workers’ identity papers and filing I-9 forms for them. The company also participated in the federal Basic Pilot program, a means of checking Social Security numbers.

It’s hard to see the raids as anything but symbolic. The pressure on employers to fill jobs Americans won’t take (whether at farms, in hotels or in processing plants), and on employees who don’t speak English and lack training to take what they can get, is so great that nothing short of wholesale reform will end the practice. Occasional factory raids and a multibillion-dollar border fence won’t do it—and the American economy couldn’t tolerate much of it.

Some 12 million people are already in this country illegally. They want work, and American businesses want to hire them. Already, employers in a number of industries, including agriculture, are experiencing crippling labor shortages because of the crackdowns on undocumented workers.

Anything short of a comprehensive package of immigration reform, such as the one initially proposed by President Bush, that meets the needs of both employers and workers is doomed to failure. Such reform should be high on congressional Democrats’ priority list.