The public trust

Jordan at Confined Space has been all over a truly nasty story that has yet to get the attention it deserves. It seems that immigration agents (who now work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which combines the old Customs Service with the enforcement part of the former INS) have using purported “OSHA briefings” to catch illegal immigrants at work.

I’m not opposed to the use of some forms of deception in law enforcement. Sending a bunch of fugitives letters telling them they’ve won free football tickets as a way of enticing them to come be arrested is just fine with me. But with extremely rare exceptions, it is simply wrong to use legitimate government functions as cover stories in sting operations, because doing so destroys trust in government.

The rule is simple: Do as much faking as you like on someone else’s letterhead, but anything that purports to come from a government agency should always be the truth. (For similar reasons, officials shouldn’t pose as reporters, lawyers, doctors, clergy, or researchers.)

In this case, OSHA has a very strong need for cooperation from illegal alien workers, who are concentrated in high-accident-rate industries and (obviously) in workplaces where the law is routinely neglected. OSHA can’t get that cooperation if the illegals think that OSHA works with “La Migra,” and consequently has been trying for years to assure potential informants that they won’t be deported for complaining about workplace-safety violations.

As Lincoln said, in a remark usually quoted only in part, “The public trust, once lost, is not easily regained. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the poeple all of the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

Hat tip: Susie Madrak, the Suburban Guerrilla, who notes that the story has finally broken into the New York Times.

The Times quotes an OSHA official as criticizing the sting, and an ICE official as defending it by analogy with undercover drug enforcement operations. But that elides what seems to me to be the central point: in a drug sting, agents pose as bad guys. Doing has the direct effect of catching some bad guys, plus the desirable indirect effect of making it harder for bad guys to trust one another.

In this case, the operation had the direct effect of catching some illegal aliens, and the undesirable indirect effect of making it harder for anyone to trust the Government of the United States of America.

Seems to me there’s a subtle but significant difference there.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: