Editor's note: Michael Lind is policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation.
(CNN) -- News that Mexican authorities found 513 would-be illegal immigrants packed tightly into trucks, with the United States as their destination, should shock Americans into action. They were from Mexico, Japan, China, India and Nepal, and authorities said each had paid $7,000 to gangsters to be smuggled in.
Coming only days after President Obama mocked those calling for stronger border and workplace enforcement (by asking if they wanted moats and alligators), the incident highlights the role of organized crime in smuggling people into the United States in defiance of federal immigration law.
The debate about immigration reform tends to focus on catching illegal immigrants like those in the smugglers' trucks at the U.S. border, by measures like more fencing or more Border Patrol agents. But the most effective way to reduce illegal immigration is to reduce the demand for the labor of illegal immigrants.
The knowledge that American employers will not hire them would have a chilling effect on foreign nationals contemplating breaking U.S. immigration and workplace laws in the future.
The importance of the demand side in the flows of illegal immigrant labor has been proven by the Great Recession that began in 2008. According to the Department of Homeland Security, apprehensions of illegal immigrants at the border has dropped considerably in the last few years.
While some of the decline in illegal immigration may be due to enhanced enforcement, the main cause is the collapse of the demand for labor in industries like agriculture, hotels and restaurants -- which employ many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
Unfortunately, both parties -- when they control the executive branch -- prefer to play politics and please constituencies rather than consistently and effectively punish employers who violate federal laws against hiring illegal immigrants.
The unwillingness of the federal government, under Republicans and Democrats alike, to stem illegal immigration by concentrating on workplace enforcement, has led many Americans to turn in desperation to their state and local governments.
Some of the measures undertaken by state and local governments, like Arizona's controversial law empowering police to stop individuals on suspicion that they are illegal immigrants, are misguided incitements to racial profiling. Other measures, like symbolic state legislation calling for the end of "birthright citizenship" for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil, are pure demagogic rabble-rousing.
The best way to eliminate the demagogy on this issue is to eliminate the issue itself. If America's elected officials had the will to do so, further waves of illegal immigration could be swiftly and drastically reduced, although not completely eliminated, by workplace enforcement measures.
Every employer in the United States could be required to use the E-Verify system designed to ensure that workers are not using forged identity documents of the kind that organized crime routinely provides. Instead of getting off with light fines for hiring illegal immigrants rather than law-abiding American citizens and legal immigrants, employers could face steep fines or jail terms.
In the years of the bubble economy, it was possible to argue that illegal immigrants were doing jobs that no Americans would do. And a case can be made that allowing a path to citizenship for most of the illegal immigrants already in the United States would be preferable to the continued existence of an exploited shadow market labor force inside America's borders.
But with mass unemployment expected to last for years, even if the economy slowly continues to recover, it makes no sense for the taxpayers to pay unemployment benefits to unemployed Americans while employers in their own states and communities continue to hire foreign nationals who have sneaked into the United States or violated federal law by overstaying their visas.
The United States has an illegal employer problem, not just an illegal immigrant problem. Any approach to enforcement that is not based on a strict crackdown on illegal employers is nothing but political theater.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Lind.