Immigration enforcement ran off the rails in the Bush era, when federal agents stormed factories to shackle workers and local authorities staged their own crackdowns with little or no oversight from Washington. It was a war without a plan, and it solved nothing.
President Obama has repeatedly promised to take a smarter path. But if he and the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, are making a clean break with the Bush way on immigration, we haven’t seen it yet. That shambling machinery lurches on.
Two recent examples tell the story.
The first was a large, peaceful protest in Phoenix on Saturday. Thousands stood up to the feared sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, who has brutally misused his powers under a program called 287(g). It enlists local police as immigration enforcers. He has terrorized Latino neighborhoods with relentless sweeps and has paraded shackled immigrants through the streets.
When she was the Arizona governor, Ms. Napolitano was an outspoken supporter of delegating neglected federal immigration duties to local authorities. Sheriff Arpaio is an example of that concept run amok. He has seldom been challenged as forcefully as he was on Saturday — not by government but by a dogged organizer, Salvador Reza, a few clergy members and politicians and thousands of people who dared to say: Enough.
The other example was the first workplace immigration raid of the Obama administration, late last month in Bellingham, Wash. More than two dozen people were arrested at a family-run company that rebuilds car engines. They were charged with the usual paperwork offenses. The company said it was blindsided, and so was Ms. Napolitano. She said she had not known about the raid in advance and promised an investigation.
Americans who might applaud any crackdown on illegal immigrants, particularly in a recession, should know that scattershot raids and rampaging sheriffs are not the answer. The idea that enforcement alone will eliminate the underground economy is a great delusion. It runs up against the impossible arithmetic of mass expulsion — no conceivable regime of raids will wrench 12 million illegal immigrants from their jobs and homes.
The country is not a safer or better place because one more business and two dozen more families are torn apart outside Seattle or because Sheriff Arpaio has much of Maricopa County terrified. The system under which illegal immigrants labor, without hope of assimilation, is not any less broken. A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that federal oversight of the 287(g) program has been sorely lacking.
So, a question: Are Mr. Obama and Ms. Napolitano in charge or not? Let them show it by ending the raids and Sheriff Arpaio’s abuses. Something has to be done about immigration, but it has to be smarter than this.