op-ed

GOP targets the immigration ‘job magnet’

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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It’s been called the “strategic” solution to controlling illegal immigration. Rather than try to seal America’s porous 2,000-mile border with Mexico, why not eliminate the “job magnet” that draws illegal aliens in the first place?

Debate over workplace immigration enforcement is about to get underway, with the first hearing of the new Republican-controlled House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration scheduled for Thursday morning.

But don’t expect a bipartisan consensus on the issue to emerge overnight. While on paper, Democrats and Republicans both say that they support efforts to crack down on illegal hiring, in part to protect American workers, they’re still at loggerheads over how best — and how fast — to do it.

Democrats say as part of a deal on workplace enforcement they want to discuss other immigration policy measures, such as a limited “amnesty” for those here illegally and reforms to the current visa system. Some moderate Republicans, with an eye to wooing Latino voters in 2012 and getting a bill through the Democrat-controlled Senate, are open to discussing a broader package.

But it’s not clear if they can convince House conservatives led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the Judiciary Committee chairman and a long-time immigration “restrictionist,” to go along.

Tomorrow’s hearing in Smith’s subcommittee, under the chairmanship of another long-time amnesty critic, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-CA), will focus on the effectiveness of the workplace “verification” system known as E-Verify that’s currently in use at the federal level.

For years, Smith, as well as Blue Dog Democrats like Rep. Health Shuler (R-SC), has been pushing to make E-Verify’s use mandatory nationwide. And starting in 2008, a dozen states, including Arizona, passed laws that required E-Verify’s use in their jurisdictions.

But last June, the Obama administration asked the US Supreme Court to overturn Arizona’s two-year-old law. Its lawsuit is similar to the one it filed to block Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, which authorizes state police to stop and question residents suspected of being in the country illegally.

A federal district judge has already blocked key provisions of SB 1070. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the second Obama lawsuit later this spring. In both lawsuits, the administration claims that only the federal government has the constitutional right
to make and enforce immigration policy.

But Arizona, backed by numerous states’ attorneys general, says it’s perfectly legal for states to implement federal laws that the feds themselves won’t aggressively enforce. In fact, two federal courts, including the same district court that blocked SB 1070, have already upheld the constitutionality of Arizona’s workplace enforcement law.

Concerns over E-Verify at the federal level aren’t based on its constitutionality, though. Democrats say the system’s database is flawed and that it’s simply not ready for prime time. Some conservatives, including Tea Party libertarians, also worry that the law will impose an excessive administrative and legal burden on US businesses, exposing them to lawsuits from US citizens and legal immigrants who may be wrongly “screened out” by the system’s notoriously flawed database.

Past government studies have shown that E-Verify only detects illegal immigrants about 50% of the time, and wrongly identifies as “illegal” a small percentage of US citizens and those with green cards. And it can take months, and in some cases more than a year, to clear up such discrepancies, leaving legal workers without employment or income.

Two government experts, including one from the US Government Accountability Office, or GAO, which has studied E-Verify, will testify Thursday that the system, while far from fool-proof, has become sufficiently accurate and dependable to warrant its expansion nationwide. In a study conducted in 2009, the GAO found that E-Verify’s “false positive” rate had already shrunk to a statistically acceptable level below 1%. In past years, studies had shown a rate that was 4-5 times higher.

Another key issue likely to arise in Thursday’s hearing is whether E-Verify should be used to validate the legal status of all current US workers — or just new hires. House Democrats who favor a legalization program don’t want to see large numbers of illegal workers exposed to another sweeping crackdown, and by limiting E-Verify to new hires, they hope to stall for time.

Democrats may also push to restrict E-Verify’s expansion to key industries like construction and food service that are known to hire large numbers of illegal workers, rather than the private sector as a whole. Let’s see how well E-Verify functions on a slightly larger scale, and make whatever adjustments are required, before mandating its use nationwide, they’ll argue.

House conservatives like Smith want a nationwide E-Verify now, but they may have to agree to compromise if they expect to see a bill passed in the Democrat-controlled Senate, and to survive a presidential veto.

Ironically, states like Arizona that have implemented E-Verify on their own haven’t reported much success to date. Very few companies have even registered to use the system, in part because the law doesn’t include a penalty for non-compliance. But under the law, businesses can still lose their business license if they are found to have hired illegal aliens. To date, only a handful of Arizona businesses have actually faced such a threat.

Smith is pushing for the same stiff penalties to be applied at the federal level, but Democrats, joined by business groups, are likely to balk at such harsh new measures as well.

Still, it’s a promising sign that Democrats and Republicans, while not yet on the same page on immigration, may be finally reading from the same book.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.