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Whose America?

Several of you commented in this blog on our coverage Wednesday of workplace raids to round up illegal immigrants. Rather than address those messages, I'd prefer to share with you some of my experiences in covering this story.

While so much has been reported about immigration in this country, and we might think we understand the issues, I realized as I was working on this story that the immigration problem is so big and so complicated -- and so emotional -- it defies anyones ability to tell it all in a single story.

All we can give you is a snapshot of the problem in a 22-minute broadcast  But, it's the complexity of the issue that explains in some measure why there's been no reasonable immigration reform.

Some might think "Why the difficulty, after all? We have immigration laws, some people have violated them so kick them out."

But it's in no way near that simple. We're talking about 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. And even though there's been a 750 percent increase over the past four years in the number of workplace arrests, immigration authorities say there are about 500,000 immigrants who've been processed in the courts and ordered out of the country. But rather than detain these people until they are deported, illegal immigrants have often been let go for a variety of reasons, sometimes on an honor system, and they simply disappear.

So now, all the money and manpower that went into investigations, arrests, and processing has been for naught. What sense does that make?

Meanwhile, the level of outrage over the arrests climbs to a fever pitch.  Politicians and community service agency officials have been furious that raids even happen at all, claiming they're unfair and put families at risk of being separated and that's a risk, they say, which goes against American ideals.

Immigrant advocates argue that so many people, while here illegally, are not underground, and are not hardened criminals,  but instead are out in plain sight, often working in well-established American companies doing America's work.

That certainly was what I found while reporting on what happened in the raid on the leather goods plant in Massachusetts that has an $82 million federal contract to make backpacks for the military. Most of those arrested appeared to be just hard working people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families.  Of course, the problem is that without proper documents, even being here is illegal. 

The raid happened because someone tipped off ICE that illegal immigrants were working at the plant. Why did it take a tip to trigger an investigation? This is a company that had a federal contract after all, yet the owners are charged with knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. What does that say about the level of confidence the plant owners had and passed on to their workers that the government didn't care or didn't have the ability to keep watch over who was working in the plant?

For me, talking to people involved in the raids brought home the reality in a very human way that the current laws are woefully complicated and ineffective in stopping people from entering and working in this country illegally. No matter what you think about how, or if, the laws should be reformed, it's clear Congress needs to engage in a serious debate and come up with a more effective policy.  What exists now just doesn't work.