Nearly 20 years ago, Mark Reed, then a top boss for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, sent agents into Nebraska to crack down on meatpackers hiring immigrants who were in the country illegally.
Agents pored over records to ferret out forged documents or fake Social Security numbers, and thousands of workers, fearful of being caught without papers, fled the state.
Reed thought the effort, Operation Vanguard, could become a national model to shut down a magnet for illegal immigration, and he said as much to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) during a congressional hearing on immigration while Vanguard was underway.
"The neon light is on. It has been for decades, and that neon light is driven by jobs," Reed testified. "As long as those jobs are available, those people are going to come in."
Smith thought otherwise. "Deportation is the strongest deterrent to illegal immigration," he said.
Soon after that 1999 hearing, political blowback prompted the agency to halt Operation Vanguard, and officials turned their focus to apprehending immigrants and militarizing the Southwest border.
In the years since, the government's strategy hasn't much changed. In the never-ending political and rhetorical war over illegal immigration, immigrants usually have received most of the blame, while businesses have gotten a relative pass - from enforcement and vitriol alike.
"If you take hypocrisy and then put in a good dose of unintended consequences, you can see why we are in such a mess," Reed, now semiretired, said of immigration enforcement. Trump administration clears the way for far more deportations Trump administration clears the way for far more deportations For all President Trump's tough talk on deportations and building a wall on the Mexican border, his executive orders on immigration so far make no mention of targeting employers. Nor did he mention employers when, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, he renewed his pledge to build the border wall.
Though Trump's rhetoric on illegal immigration is unusual compared with previous presidents, his basic approach to enforcement is not. In fiscal years 2009 through 2016, immigration officials deported more than 2.5 million people. During that same time, officials arrested 1,337 managers of businesses on charges that included illegal hiring, tax evasion and money laundering.
"It's always been easier to go after the workers," said Doris Meissner, a former INS commissioner. "But is that any more than just counting numbers? Does that actually change the basic magnet effect of the jobs? No."
For years, federal law did not bar the hiring of people in the country without legal status.
That changed in 1986, when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law, commonly called IRCA, granted residency to about 3 million people who were in the country without legal status, bolstered border enforcement and for the first time established penalties for hiring people who were in the country illegally.