With the jobs bill that just passed the Senate, a small group of Republican Senators, led by Jeff Sessions of Alabama, tried to hold up matters by insisting that immigration provisions be added to the bill. Once again, the “Party of No” morphs into the “Party of No Way Jose” as the GOP trots out its all-purpose boogeyman: “illegals”
Another bill moves through the Senate to help the American economy and the Republicans in that body try to add an immigration rider to it. As has become his habit, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama had been exerting pressure all week to make the E-Verify electronic employment verification system part of the jobs bill that just passed the Senate. He argues that unless employers are compelled to verify the eligibility of every worker on their payroll, some of the benefits of the jobs bill could conceivably go to the GOP’s all-purpose boogeyman: “illegals.”
Yes, whether it’s “cars for clunkers” the stimulus bill, or any other time-sensitive help for America’s sluggish economy, the “Party of No” finds a way to transform itself into the “Party of No Way Jose.” And it is usually Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the junior Senator from Alabama, leading the way.
Spurred on by the usual anti-immigration lobby groups, Sessions led a group of seven Senators in a letter to the President calling for immigration restrictions on the jobs bill that passed the Senate on a 70-28 vote on Wednesday night. Fellow Republicans Jim Bunning (KY), Saxby Chambliss (GA), Tom Coburn (OK), Chuck Grassley (IA), James Inhofe (OK), Johnny Isakson (GA), and David Vitter joined sessions on this occasion and NumberUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform lit up their lists and twitterati to support Sessions and his fellow Senators.
What Is E-Verify?
E-Verify is an electronic employment verification system that checks your Social Security number against a federal database to tell your employer whether or not you’re authorized to work in the United States. It is not just for immigrants, but for everybody hired by an employer in the program.
While it sounds like a logical idea, it doesn’t work as well as it should. The data used in the federal database is not reliable enough, the process for correcting mistakes is not what it needs to be, and one more thing: it doesn’t do a very good job of keeping unauthorized workers from working.
If you’re an immigrant in the country illegally and you’ve been working on a false or borrowed Social Security number for a while, you may not get caught by the E-Verify check. The Swift company found that out the hard way when a series of meat processing plants were raided and workers carted away and deported. Swift was an early adopter of the E-Verify system and says it was using it for all its hires. Face it, most unauthorized workers have been in the U.S. for a number of years and have gotten through the process of filling out the I-9 form with employers, often multiple times. It’s also worth remembering that most unauthorized immigrants are “on-the-books.” The Social Security Administration estimates that 75% of undocumented immigrants are on the tax rolls getting the full load of payroll taxes withheld from their checks.
And therein lies another problem. Let’s say E-Verify does do a reasonably good job of identifying unauthorized workers and preventing them from working on-the-books. That doesn’t mean their work won’t then happen off-the-books. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office looked at a previous plan to make E-Verify mandatory and estimated it would cost the U.S. taxpayer more than $17 billion over ten years as work formerly conducted above board got pushed into the under-the-table cash – and untaxed – economy.
Unfortunately, there is another cost and that is to U.S. citizens and immigrants eligible to work. Right now, about 1 percent of America’s employers are signed up for E-Verify and even fewer actually use it (and even fewer use it correctly). The Social Security Administration, which helps administer the program, estimates that more than 4% of the records in the federal database have errors and that the problems would magnify if more employers are added, and especially if they are added quickly. So one in 25 people hired in the U.S. economy will have a problem and have to spend time at the local Social Security Administration office or Department of Homeland Security cleaning up the mess.
More likely, employers are going to do what studies show they are already doing: misuse the system to pre-screen employees and not hire anyone that has a data problem. Or, employers may just take a pass on hiring anyone who looks or sounds foreign.
It might not sound scary to you, but imagine you have an extravagant, foreign sounding name like Tom Tancredo or Mark Krikorian. Or imagine you were born Michele Marie Amble and later married a guy named Marcus Bachmann and now go by the name Michele Bachmann. You better hope all the paperwork got to the right bureaucrat and that nobody made a data entry error. Otherwise, you might be out of a job (hmmm, now there’s a thought).
Sessions’ Magic Bullet
So that’s Senator Sessions’ magic bullet that he wanted attached to the jobs bill and that he is still agitating to make part of any jobs bill so that employers can’t get a tax credit if they hire an unauthorized worker. It’s a big government solution to interfere with the private sector that will delay hiring out-of-work Americans and legal immigrants while creating a greater tax burden for small businesses and average citizens who are playing by the rules. Are you sure you’re reading the right GOP talking points, Senator Sessions?
I am actually a big fan of E-Verify. I think if it is phased-in and has modern database procedures and protections that address privacy and error-correction, it should be part of immigration reform. We should be expanding E-Verify while we simultaneously get people who are working without authorization into the system and legal. They get the rights and responsibilities of being governed by U.S. labor law, their employer is forced to compete fairly in the marketplace, work and commerce are fully taxed, and new immigrant workers – and all workers in every job in the economy – have an accurate, well-regulated, unimpeachable ticket to employment. We have the technology to do it right and it should be part of a broader fix that helps America’s labor markets.
My friends at the ACLU don’t agree. They have remained mostly neutral on immigration reform and have big problems with a worker verification system that smacks of a national ID. The lack of privacy and error-correction protections in the current program and the experience with other massive government databases rightly raises concerns. And they are not alone. The National Rifle Association opposes anything resembling a national ID because they fear it is just a hop-skip-and-a-jump to the government maintaining lists of gun owners. A lot of the Libertarians are not big fans either.
He Opposed It, But Now He’s For It
And guess what? S
enator Jeff Sessions opposed it too. He not only voted against E-Verify in the past, he led the fight to kill legislation in 2006 and 2007 that would have phased-in mandatory use by all employers in the economy. That’s right, mandatory, universal E-Verify was part of the immigration reform bills Sessions worked so hard to kill in 2006 and 2007. He would argue that the legalization and legal immigration components of the bill were the parts he opposed, but the fact is, Sessions and his allies only want E-Verify if it is part of a strategy to deport or drive out millions upon millions of immigrants. In the meantime, it gives them cover to oppose measures they want to oppose anyway.
The 2006 bill that passed the GOP-led Senate, based on the original proposal by Senators McCain and Kennedy, was actually the most comprehensive immigration enforcement package put together up to that point. That’s why some in the pro-immigrant movement didn’t love it. It would have doubled the size of the Border Patrol, doubled the number of immigration enforcement officers concentrating on workplaces and the interior enforcement, added fencing and technology and gadgets on the border, upgraded ports of entry, had anti-gang and anti-terrorism measures, and enhanced criminal and civil penalties against employers. It was a whole list of enforcement measures, some of which I think were more symbolic than effective and some which were over the top and undesirable.
But the most important enforcement measures in previous or future immigration reform bills are the legal immigration and legalization provisions. By widening legal channels, you replace the flow of people that is currently happening in the black market with a vetted, visa process. People who see our current immigration mess and figure their only way to come to the U.S. is to go around – not through – our system could apply. They would go through background checks, pay fees, and wait their turn to come legally. Once here, they would be protected by rights, their entry and exit would be tracked, and their employers would have a harder time cheating them – or U.S.-born workers – by skirting labor and wage laws. It would not be unlimited legal immigration but a rate tied to the ups and downs of the economy so that there are not big gaps between the supply of legal immigration (visas) and the demand for legal immigration by American employers and families requesting visas.
The traffic into and out of the United States would happen through controlled ports of entry. We would take away the cash cow that has created so many jobs for polleros or people smugglers. And the traffic not going through ports of entry with visas would be a lot easier to identify and stop because the folks coming to work or be reunited with families would be on buses or airplanes, not smuggled like cargo.
That would give us a good handle on who is coming, but the legalization component is equally important to tell us who is already here. Immigrants here illegally would come forward, register with the government, pay a reasonable but not prohibitive fine, and go through a criminal background check. They would work on the books, would be protected by rights, their entry and exit would be tracked, and their employers would have a harder time cheating them – or anyone else – by skirting labor and wage laws. And the vast underground in American cities and towns of people afraid to call the police, afraid to contact anyone official, and consigned to a second-class non-citizen limbo would be in a position to become true partners in their American communities.
Real Rules And Real Enforcement
This is the enforcement deal Senator Sessions and his allies can’t accept. People would have rights and legal status and be accepted like previous generations of immigrants as future citizens, voters, and leaders. They would be legitimate in the eyes of the law as they are already in the eyes of God. That just doesn’t fit with the restrictionists’ vision of America.
They need marginalization. They need classes of “us” and scary masses of “them.” They need illegality because it is easier to fight against illegal immigration than it is to fight against legal immigration.
And that is the goal: to reduce the number of immigrants. That is what the anti-immigration movement is about – the numbers. The illegality is just a convenient target of opportunity. Make legal immigration difficult for everyone and impossible for most people and then rail against the illegalities to try and score political points and make the Democrats look soft.
So far, that has proven to be a fairly successful strategy in the Deep South. Senator Sessions probably knows that Alabama Republican voters want him to be “tough on illegals.” In 2008, exit polls show that 52% of GOP primary voters in Alabama responded “deport them” to the question: What should happen to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.? (48% of Alabama Republican primary voters chose either temporary or permanent legal status). Outside of the Deep South, that slim majority favoring deportation disappears, with rare exceptions, as voters favor legal status.
For comparison, the most recent poll of this nature I’ve seen was a Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News poll of Texas voters last week that found 38% favor deportation for immigrants here illegally and 52% favoring some form of legal status.
I have been using this weekly column to argue why Democrats need to move forward with immigration reform legislation in 2010 and I continue to think it would be a good idea – for the Democrats – to do so. They have the stronger enforcement approach to immigration and it will strengthen the economy and strengthen the job market for all workers.
But it will also silence people like Jeff Sessions who express their immigration outrage on every issue and tap into America’s genuine consternation with having millions of immigrants here illegally. Let’s get the illegality resolved, put the rules in place, and build back the trust that the government is doing what it is supposed to be doing by enforcing those rules. Ultimately, that strategy will illuminate the political opportunism in the Session’s position. Then, if he and his allies want to have a debate about how much or how little legal immigration we should have and how open we should be to immigrants from around the world, we can have that debate on its own terms.