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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
Commentary

A way the House can advance immigration reform


Published:

If the House of Representatives is determined to undermine the Senate’s work on immigration reform, it might as well do the job right.

Although the Senate last year approved comprehensive immigration legislation by a margin of more than 2 to 1, Speaker John Boehner has been unable to convince House Republicans that a path to citizenship — or even legal status — for undocumented immigrants is essential to resolving the issue.

But there is something the House can do. It can begin to lay a basis for the kind of legislative deal that could pass in a year, maybe two, when Republicans face up to the fact that their future depends on it. Such a deal would achieve what many of the House’s most vocal opponents of reform have long demanded: a crackdown on illegal immigration.

The catch is that this crackdown will have little to do with the U.S.-Mexico border. The Senate bill already includes a staggering $46 billion for border control, doubling the size of the patrol force (which is already double its 2004 size). The House Homeland Security Committee has put forward its own, far cheaper immigration security bill, but it still suffers from Washington’s obsession with the border. Politicians from varied and distant locales relish demanding militarization down yonder while continuing to ignore the reality of illegal immigration in their own backyards.

What reality? As many as 8 million undocumented immigrants hold jobs in the United States. In fact, they account for more than 5 percent of the U.S. labor force. Their unemployment rate might even be lower than that of the nation’s black citizens.

And, stereotypes aside, the undocumented are hardly relegated to agriculture and domestic service. Construction, manufacturing and retail are among their biggest employers, according to the Migration Policy Institute. So, either quite a few of the nation’s 6 million employers have welcomed undocumented workers into their factories and stores, or a smaller number of employers have hired an awful lot of them.

Either way, little is being done to stop the practice. Workplace enforcement is minimal. Fines are small. Amid all the political bellowing about the border, no one in Washington pays much attention to employers’ practices.

Yet with 95,000 miles of shoreline, 500 commercial airports and a northern border that’s twice as long as its southern one, the U.S. could transform its Southwest into North Korea and still not stem the flow of undocumented immigrants seeking work, many of whom simply overstay legitimate visas. The only way to make meaningful progress is to end the lure of employment.

That will require fewer additional resources for border patrol and more for workplace enforcement, such as E-Verify. This electronic employment verification system, administered by the Department of Homeland Security, has been a qualified success. From 2007 to 2012, E-Verify queries from employers increased to more than 21 million, from 3.3 million. As of February 2013, more than 432,000 employers were using the system to confirm the eligibility of prospective employees.

E-Verify can still be gamed. One independent study found that during a three-month period in 2008, about half the unauthorized workers whose backgrounds it checked were nonetheless approved for work. But DHS has been upgrading the system so that it can access additional databases and more carefully filter applications.

As the system improves, of course, the demand for high-quality identity fraud stands to increase commensurately — as does off-the-books employment of undocumented workers.

If Congress is serious about turning off the flow of undocumented immigrants, it will have to give DHS the resources it needs for workplace enforcement, including on-site inspections.

The House has stalled progress on immigration reform. If it is going to make the nation wait for a solution, it should recognize that the place to stop the inflow is not at the point of entry, but at the point of hire.

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