op-ed

Border Security Is Important For Immigration But Workplace Enforcement Is YUGE

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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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What’s the best way to keep illegal immigrants from entering the United States? Most Republicans would say tougher border security. Many have loudly applauded President Donald Trump’s proposal to build an impenetrable “wall” between the United States and Mexico and to hire more border patrol agents to keep unwanted aliens out.

But even the best border barrier isn’t infallible. Some aliens will slip through — or simply overstay a tourist visa. So, it’s critical to have a second layer of defense in the interior of the country.

Conservatives know that. That’s why they want to deputize law enforcement as de facto immigration agents on the nation’s highways and in federal, state and local prisons.  Aliens stopped on the road or booked at jails will be fast-tracked for deportation. In fact, it’s already happening — by executive order.

But even these measures — essentially tripwires — are hardly foolproof. If you really want to target illegal aliens, it’s at the point of hiring.  Nearly everyone acknowledges – quietly, it seems — that often difficult-to-fill low-skill jobs are the real “magnet” for immigrants to try to enter the country illegally.

But thus far it’s been nearly impossible to institute an effective workplace enforcement system.

Part of the problem — but only part, and probably not the most important part — is technical.

Democrats and some Republicans have long complained that most “workplace verification” systems — like “E-Verify” — are too error-prone to be useful.

And for years, politicians have used that argument to stall or derail bills that included the program.

But the real problem isn’t technical. It’s political. Most American businesses don’t want to be held responsible for weeding out illegal aliens from the workforce. They don’t want to shoulder administrative burden or the additional costs involved. We’re not immigration “cops,” they insist.

In fact, the last time a comprehensive immigration reform package passed the Congress, in 1986, businesses revolted against a proposed provision–– known as “employer sanctions” — that would have punished them for employing illegal workers.

Their revolt was so strong that Congress was forced to water down the employer sanctions provision to the point where it no longer served as an effective deterrent to illegal hiring.

Businesses were allowed to claim an “affirmative defense” against illegal hiring by claiming that they had made a “reasonable effort” to verify the legal status of their workers by inspecting their hiring documents. As long as those documents seemed “genuine on their face,” employers could not be accused of “knowingly” hiring illegal workers.

As a result, illegal aliens began forging their hiring documents en masse. And not surprisingly, it was soon found that “employer sanctions” system weren’t working. In fact, fabricating green cards and driver’s licenses and stealing social security numbers became a burgeoning new industry.

Believe it or not, this toothless system of workplace enforcement — which has deluded taxpayers into thinking that their government was actually protecting their jobs as well as their borders — has remained in place at the federal level for the past thirty-plus years.

What little progress that’s been made is due largely to conservatives pushing for E-Verify at the state level. Currently, some 20 states have mandated the use of E-Verify in the private or public sector, or in some cases, both. Nationally, about 57 percent of all jobs are screened with E-Verify, up from just 30 percent in 2010.  But with only piecemeal and partial local enforcement, illegal aliens are free to apply for work in the thirty states that don’t use E-Verify.

President Trump, to his credit, has decided that America, at last, must end the current “nod-and-a-wink” conspiracy between illegal immigrants and low-skill businesses by insisting that E-Verify be implemented nationwide.

But Trump hasn’t exactly touted E-Verify, either. A border wall is a far more visually compelling symbol and metaphor for American policy intent. It also implicates America’s southern neighbor more directly. Mexico has no reason to pay for interior enforcement, but insisting that Mexico fund a wall along a border the two countries share makes perfect sense. It also stokes the kind of patriotic fervor that keeps Trump popular with the GOP base.

Downplaying E-Verify also allows Trump to dodge a potential fight with the US business community over immigration enforcement. Remember: Trump needs the business community’s support on tax reform, infrastructure rebuilding and a host of other economic issues.

Antagonizing business groups on an issue they are leery of could backfire. Immigrants are heavily concentrated in “Blue” states like California, New York and New Jersey. Democrats in these states would love to exploit business resistance to workplace verification to win support for their political candidates and to undermine Trump’s immigration policies generally.

Some Democrats have support an expanded E-Verify system in the past, but only in the context of a sweeping amnesty program. Without a commitment from Trump to expand legalizations beyond the so-called DREAMers, they’re unlikely to support E-Verify.

Trump should agree to make that commitment – one still short of a full-scale amnesty, mind you — if it ensures that tougher workplace enforcement as well as border enforcement receives bipartisan support.

No doubt some powerful conservatives will howl. And business concerns will need to be allayed.

But getting E-Verify passed is simply too important not to make additional concessions.

Illegal immigration is at its lowest level since 2003, but those flows will resume – and surge – as the economy keeps expanding. We need a deal now. Otherwise, we will be arguing over this same issue – without resolution – for another thirty years.

Stewart Lawrence is a consultant and policy analyst.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.