Image Americans who hoped sanity might somehow come to the Congress on the issue of illegal immigration were thrown into gloom by the mid-term elections of November 7. Democrats swept into control of both House and Senate on voter-dissatisfaction with scandal, overspending, and a dreary occupation of Iraq which seems nowhere near a positive conclusion.

The votes were barely counted when Democrats proclaimed that the voters had repudiated GOP attempts to keep illegals out. White House strategists contacted Democratic leaders to work on the "comprehensive" immigration bill Mr. Bush wants. It would give millions of resident illegal aliens legal status and a path to eventual citizenship. The amnesty (in all but name) would undoubtedly draw millions more across our borders. The war against the illegal tide seemed lost.

But a small ray of hope has now penetrated the gloom. Last week a small news item – hardly noticed by major news organs – reported that eighteen former employees of Swift & Company, a multi-state meat-processing firm, have sued Swift for damages because the company hired large numbers of illegal workers. Plaintiffs claim this caused their dismissal and kept wages depressed at the Swift plant in Cactus, Texas. The suit asks $23 million in exemplary damages, plus back wages the workers would have received, had they remained employed.

Michael Heygood, an attorney for the plaintiffs, noted: "When the Swift Plant opened in Cactus, wages were approximately $20 an hour. Now the average wage is approximately $12 to $13 an hour. Illegal immigration has fueled this depression in wages." (With annual sales of $9 billion, Swift is the world’s second-largest processor of beef and pork.)

The civil lawsuit follows a raid last week in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested 1,282 illegal aliens at Swift meat-processing plants in Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Iowa and Minnesota. The raid concluded Operation Wagon Train, a 10-month investigation of a massive identity-theft conspiracy. Illegal workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Peru, Laos, Ethiopia, and Sudan were charged with using stolen Social Security cards and other documents obtained from illegal-document rings and vendors.

Swift sued to stop the raids, claiming that its business would suffer "substantial and irreparable injury", but judges allowed the arrests to proceed. The workers charged represent 8% of Swift’s workforce of 15,000. After a one-day suspension of operations, Swift reopened all six plants at a slightly reduced level of production. No difficulty has been reported finding new legal workers.

Up until now, a collusion of negligent officialdom has let illegals find employment in the USA, either with or without documents. An illegal without documents will be hired at substandard wages, like $2.00/hour, by employers who wink at the illegality and pay by the day. Another illegal worker might possess a Social Security document, but he uses a name other than the name of record for that SSN. In a third type of scam, an illegal worker with a stolen SSN actually uses the correct name for that number.

Many communities have tolerated day-laborer hiring, but crowds of illegal workers in parking lots, waiting to be hired, are disruptive. Consequently, some communities are building worker "centers" where either documented or undocumented workers can wait for work. Naturally, these communities attract more illegal workers. Residents complain, but local governments often refuse, for political reasons, to let local police look for or arrest illegals. In Herndon, VA, voters threw out a mayor and most of a town council who had approved a day-worker shelter over vigorous public objections. Residents of Gaithersburg, Maryland, have also been battling their county government over plans to build a worker facility.

Use of a Social Security number by a person whose name does not match that number is common. The Social Security Agency routinely notifies employers of such situations, but takes no other action. The reason is obvious: payroll taxes are pouring into the Treasury with no need to credit them since the payer is not the true holder of the number. In some cases, the employer keeps the taxes he deducted for such workers, knowing that they will not file returns or make pension claims. Those taxes are simply the employer’s bonus for hiring illegal workers.

The bolder practice of actually using the name on a stolen Social Security card has become "a disturbing new trend", according to Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie L. Myers, who also heads the ICE. Often these cases are difficult to detect unless an employer reports that a worker’s persona does not seem to match his "name" (e.g., an obviously Hispanic person named Bill Jones). Or the SSA might see two workers in different parts of the country using the same name and SSN. This might require investigation, under current law. (The ICE did not reveal how it discovered that large numbers of Swift workers were using names and SSNs fraudulently.)

The Swift raid indicates that some of our governing apparatus is taking illegal immigration seriously. But an arrest is a long way from a conviction. And even if a conviction is obtained, an appeal at some judicial level could result in a sympathetic judge striking down some or all of the law that prohibited the workers’ activities or enabled the investigation that found them. It would not surprise me to hear, months or years from now, that all charges in the Swift case had been dropped, or that detainees originally released on bond later could not be found for trial. Judges have been releasing illegals back into American society for years. Our legal system is shot so full of holes that it ought to be called the Court of the Swiss Cheese.

Thus, the criminal courts do not encourage me very much. But the Swift civil suit might be a turning point in the illegal immigration battle. Although I often decry civil suits, I’m rooting for this one. There is nothing like visions of dollars to make lawyers ambitious about applying the law. Once a precedent is established of awarding damages in such cases, companies will start dumping illegal workers faster than you can say "pork chop". The reason to sneak in will dry up.

Heretofore, winks and nods by government officials have let companies hire low-wage illegals with relative impunity. But multi-million-dollar awards to workers claiming they were damaged by the practice might overturn that game-board. Something voters could hardly accomplish by literally storming the Capitol might actually get done by silk-suited lawyers in Cactus, Texas. The Lord certainly does work in mysterious ways.

Americans are deeply conflicted about illegal aliens. Yes, those workers arrested at the Swift plants are real people trying to scratch by and support their families. Theirs will not be a very merry Christmas. I am sorry for them, as I am sorry for anyone who breaks laws our elected representatives have enacted. It is too bad, but we can’t simply abrogate laws because people who violate them are in tough situations. Where would it stop?

Readers who think their exposure to illegal workers is limited to low-priced maid service, yard work and food-processing might cast the odd sympathetic thought toward legal workers whose wages are being driven down to starvation levels by illegals. You can’t run a country that way. You can’t run Herndon or Cactus that way, either.

And, yes, the situation south of the border is wretched. I have been down there. The place is a dump, and I don’t blame people a bit for trying by hook or crook to come here. In their situation, I would do the same. Most Americans wouldn’t tolerate living and working conditions like that for five minutes. But we can’t solve those problems by just letting every Mexican (Salvadoran, Honduran, etc.) in who wants to come – not unless we want our place to become like theirs.

A friend who emigrated years ago from India said this about beggars, which are everywhere in his old country: "If you give a dollar to every beggar you see, eventually you will be poor, but there will still be beggars."

We cannot allow legal workers like those at Swift to be hurt just because we feel "sorry" for impoverished Mexicans, Central Americans, etc. At the end of the day, we’ll be impoverished, too, and they will still be pouring in. As Al Gore might say, it’s an "inconvenient truth". We can close our eyes to it, but it will still be true. No getting around it.