Workplace immigration enforcement: Another policy orphan?

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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John F. Kennedy once said: “Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.” He was referring to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. But he could just as easily have been describing our failed immigration policies.

Consider the plight of workplace enforcement, long hailed as the “strategic solution” to illegal immigration. Why? Because it’s the so-called “job magnet” — the availability of grueling and sometimes dangerous low-skill work, much of it avoided by native-born workers — that tempts immigrants to break the law by scaling border fences and over-staying their visas.

If illegal immigrants couldn’t get jobs in the U.S., they couldn’t earn money to support themselves and their families, including relatives back home. They’d probably never make the journey here to begin with.

Which means taxpayers could save millions of dollars on largely futile attempts to “seal” the porous U.S.-Mexico border or monitor, track and apprehend visa overstayers.

But here’s the rub: most Democrats and Republicans won’t back tough and effective workplace enforcement legislation.

Democrats say it’s because Republicans won’t agree to give a path to citizenship to the millions of illegal immigrants already here. They also complain — despite mounting evidence to the contrary — that verification systems are still too prone to error to be relied upon.

But most Republicans, for all their tough rhetoric on border security — and criticism of the Democrats for being “soft” on illegal immigration — aren’t pushing for expanded workplace enforcement, either.

The reason? Business groups that typically favor Republicans don’t think private companies should be turned into immigration “cops,” in part because of the added administrative and legal burdens involved.

But their real beef? If stricter hiring enforcement works, they won’t have ready access to cheap labor and, to avoid crippling shortages, may have to raise wages just to attract native-born workers.

In fact, business groups aren’t just balking at workplace enforcement; they’re actively opposing it. Witness the lawsuits filed against a spate of new state laws seeking to crack down on illegal hiring.

Businesses in immigrant-heavy industries like construction, food service and agriculture are in the forefront of these legal challenges.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) recently introduced a bill that would make use of the “E-Verify” workplace verification system mandatory nationwide. But expect major business lobbyists, joined by Latino and immigration advocacy groups, to aggressively oppose Smith’s bill.

Who actually supports expanded workplace enforcement? Practically no one. Die-hards in Congress like Smith and citizens groups and state legislators angered by unchecked immigration, and elements of the Department of Homeland Security with a vested interested in immigration enforcement, are leading the charge, often in the face of bipartisan opposition.

Even some Tea Party groups hostile to illegal immigration seem ambivalent about expanded workplace controls. They don’t want to see the federal government create more centralized databases that could invade the privacy rights of ordinary citizens. The threat is overblown, but the specter is enough to keep groups from actively supporting Smith’s bill.

In Utah, state legislators tried to soften the blow of “E-Verify” by agreeing to set up an unprecedented state “guest worker” program to allow Utah businesses access to replacement workers once a hiring crackdown is implemented. But Congress, including Utah’s own senior Republican senator, Orrin Hatch, is cool to the idea, even though the state GOP supports it.

In the final analysis, it’s much easier — and sexier — to support expanded border security, even though most studies show that the current 700-mile border fence doesn’t actually stop illegal entry; at best it just slows it down.

But it does give immigration bureaucrats a bigger budget for border control agents and fancy sensor and intelligence-gathering equipment — and it gives the public the mistaken impression that the problem is being “solved.”

Contrast that to E-Verify. A company can run a prospective employee’s identification through the federal database online, and if need be, follow up on any discrepancies by telephone.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a cheaper and more cost-effective private-sector solution was ignored in favor of a big-government boondoggle.

With deficit-reduction and smaller government the watchwords of the emerging 2012 campaign, how much longer will conservatives allow that to happen on immigration?

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.