By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The worry used to be that illegal immigrants were stealing welfare. Then it was jobs. Now, we're told, they're stealing people's identities.
For as long as anyone can remember, illegal immigrants have been working with the aid of bogus Social Security numbers. And this was seen for what it was -- a violation of U.S. immigration law.
But last week, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounded up 1,282 illegal immigrants by raiding meat processing plants in six states -- Colorado, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and Utah -- the operation was marketed as a crackdown on identity theft.
ICE chief Julie L. Myers told reporters that agents uncovered a scheme in which illegal immigrants and others had stolen or bought the Social Security numbers of U.S. citizens and lawful residents for the purpose of getting jobs with Colorado-based meat processor Swift & Co.
No! And ICE agents just figured this out? Dick Tracy, they're not.
Why spin this as a crackdown on identity theft? That has a sinister ring to it, as if illegal immigrants were using stolen credit cards and withdrawing money from ATMs. More than likely, the extent of it was that people were using Social Security numbers that didn't belong to them so they could work at dirty jobs that Americans wouldn't do -- just as they have for generations, before the phrase "identity theft" entered the national lexicon.
ICE shouldn't have to go to the trouble of bending the truth. If these workers were here illegally, and they got caught, then they should be deported. Period. The government has every right to do so, and those activists and union leaders who are complaining about families being separated and portraying ICE as the Grinch who stole Christmas don't have a leg to stand on.
People need to take responsibility for their actions, and that includes illegal immigrants. If they enter the country illegally, and secure employment illegally, they're taking their chances. If, one day, their luck runs out, and their children wind up stranded because mommy or daddy got nabbed in an immigration raid, the blame lies with mommy or daddy.
Of course, if this were presented as an immigration crackdown, people might ask: Why were no charges filed against the employer -- Swift & Co? The world's second-largest meat processing company has "never condoned the employment of unauthorized workers, nor ... knowingly hired such individuals," Swift & Co. President and CEO Sam Rovit said in a statement.
Note the word: knowingly. Rovit didn't just fall off the meat wagon. He's read the statute. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act made it a crime to "knowingly" hire illegal immigrants.
That's a monster loophole. Suddenly, whenever there is a raid, no one knows anything. Illegal workers? Who? What? Where?
It's cynical, and it's the sort of thing that makes it hard to believe that Americans are serious about combating illegal immigration. How can we be if we don't address the problem at its source?
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. Click here to read his column.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Crackdown on illegal immigration was marketed as a crackdown on identity theft.
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