Chipotle firings are a case study of a broken system.
The firings of 700 immigrant workers by Chipotle Restaurants in Minnesota underscores the country’s urgent need for significant immigration reform.
Federal agents used a more sensible and humane strategy in targeting Chipotle earlier this month, relying on paperwork audits instead of an armed workplace raid with arrests and swift deportations like those carried out during the administration of George W. Bush.
From the Swift meatpacking plant in Worthington, Minn., to Agriprocessors kosher plant in Postville, Iowa, those kinds of government raids violently ripped apart hundreds of families. In many cases, children watched their parents go to work one day and never come home.
Many workers were imprisoned and deported before their families had a chance to say goodbye. The devastation impacted schools, businesses, communities and houses of worship.
Fortunately, those types of raids appear to be a thing of the past.
The Obama administration has focused on holding employers accountable for any workers hired illegally. This is done by auditing select businesses to see whether they filed the required paperwork verifying their workers’ eligibility for employment.
The forms, known as I-9s, are being scrutinized by agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Going after employers who knowingly hire illegal workers isn’t a new approach. It was the tactic used after the 1986 immigration reform as a way to deter employers from hiring illegal immigrants. Lax enforcement undermined that goal.
But under Obama, ICE conducted 2,200 paperwork audits last year and fined companies nearly $7 million. The previous year’s audits of 1,400 companies resulted in $1 million in fines.
The strategy of targeting business hiring makes good sense on many levels, but it also raises several concerns. The government hasn’t been forthcoming about how it selects the businesses it audits.
And while some employers knowingly hire workers illegally, others make good-faith efforts to make sure the necessary paperwork is in order but are vulnerable to fraudulent identifying documents, such as fake Social Security cards.
With 11.1 million illegal immigrants residing in the United States — some for decades — it’s simply unrealistic to expect they’ll return to their homelands if they’re fired. Now, instead of being taxpaying workers, many are thrust into poverty because of the I-9 firings.
Many businesses across America say they need immigrant workers in order to thrive. But they’ve not offered a unified voice on the issue. A notable exception is the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which has said immigrants will become increasingly vital to the state’s economy as baby boomers retire.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged Congress to work with him to fix “our broken immigration system.”
The president has rightly said that reforms must also include strong, but humane, measures to protect the nation’s borders as well as programs to help immigrants learn English, American history and the traditions of good citizenship.
Some Republicans also have called for reform, in part because of the growing number of Hispanic voters who lean Democratic.
Whatever the reason, all reasonable voices are welcome. The country can’t afford to continue down a divisive and hostile path when it comes to immigration reform.
It’s time, as Obama says, to fix a broken system.