Monday, May 29, 2006

An Aria on Immigration

As with any good opera we shall hear a stunning aria. The same can be said regarding our current Immigration discussion. The central question one needs to ask regarding the immigration discussion is who carries the burden?

More than 10 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, and 1,400 more arrive every day. Once concentrated in a few big states like Texas and California, they are rapidly moving into non-traditional areas such as the Midwest and South. Willing to work for low wages, the migrants are creating a backlash among some residents of the new states, which have seen a nearly tenfold increase in illegal immigration since 1990. While illegal immigrants only make up about 5 percent of the U.S. work force, critics of the nation's immigration policies say illegal immigrants take Americans' jobs, threaten national security and even change the nation's culture by refusing to assimilate. But immigrants' advocates say illegal migrants fill the jobs Americans refuse to take and generally boost the economy. Proposals to deal with illegal immigration include the Real ID bill, which would block states from issuing driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants, and “guest worker” programs granting temporary legal status to illegal workers.

Let us talk about enforcement (security) and business. A central fact of immigration enforcement, though, is that business must be a willing participant and not an impediment. By screening its job applicants, even with the help of government databases, business becomes part of the enforcement mechanism. In fact, the system would become largely self-enforcing. Without corporate cooperation, the government could resort to raids and severe penalties, but it would face long odds. The key to gaining that cooperation, and by extension any real success in controlling illegal immigration, is in the many details that members of Congress are trying to negotiate into an overall immigration bill. What exactly would business have to do? How strict would enforcement be? To what extent would business be liable for errors? How much would the government, and government-sponsored technology, be able to help separate legal from illegal job applicants and discover well-forged work documents?

Congress does not have an encouraging history in this area. Enforcement provisions of the 1986 immigration law — the last major change in policy — were weakly worded and poorly enforced. In fact, studies by both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Congressional Research Service (CRS) have found that workplace enforcement over the past decade has been almost non-existent. When Congress has had an opportunity to strengthen the law, it hasn’t. Instead, lawmakers have intervened to in effect shield companies from aggressive enforcement by immigration authorities, with the argument that immigration raids have run off workers and hurt local economies.

The House and Senate disagree about how the system should work and whether businesses should receive inducements to cooperate. Business leaders say they would be willing to go along with the verification system proposed by the Senate, but not without something in return. They want assurances that they would continue to have access to large supplies of low-wage workers, through the kind of guest worker program that President Bush has proposed. House Republicans say business is in no position to make demands, however. They are standing by their enforcement-only approach, which would require businesses to verify the legality not only of new workers but also of those already on the payroll. The House would not authorize a guest worker program. “All you need to do is have a couple well-publicized raids, where an employer has a $12.5 million dollar fine, and you will see a lot less” hiring of illegal immigrants, said Republican F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the sponsor of the House measure. Some business lobbyists say that unless Congress provides a secure verification system and guest workers, they will be content to let the immigration legislation die this year and try again after the elections. That is partly false bravado. A number of states have enacted their own workplace enforcement laws, and big companies will have to contend with a patchwork of differing statutes if Congress doesn’t pass an overriding federal law soon.

All this points to an unworkable system. “We can write all the laws we want,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip. “But you need to have an administration that says we will now enforce those laws. And there has been a dramatic decline in enforcement with this administration.” Well, not quite. Even when Congress has tried to get tough with workplace enforcement, business has managed to get its way. The 1986 law requires employers to complete a government document known as Form I-9, on which they verify that they have looked at and feel confident in workers’ documents showing that they have the right to employment in the United States. In 1997 the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform found that fake documents make it easy for illegal immigrants to find work. A number of GAO reports have underscored the widespread fraud. Even jobs that could pose security risks, such as those at airports, nuclear plants or military bases, have been obtained by illegal workers, according to a 2004 GAO report. Sporadic evidence and congressional testimony show that some companies just turn a blind eye to document fraud. Each year, the IRS receives tens of thousands of W-2 wage statements with inaccurate or completely bogus Social Security numbers.
This all leads to a bigger question and the topic of this post. Who carries the burden? From all the evidence provided and all the reading an informed individual must admit that it is the immigrants, after all, who carry the burden. Not businesses that use them for cheap labor or Congress that use them for photo opportunities and campaign platforms and certainly not pundits who have received their thirty-seconds of fame at an immigrant’s expense. The next question that will be discussed tomorrow is what is practical and smart? The answers are not necessarily simplistic but certainly better than the alternatives being voiced.

Much of my sourcing came from:

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