New York Times (Editorial)
March 20, 2017
President Trump began his campaign assailing immigrants as ruthless lawbreakers who steal American jobs with impunity. To halt them, he has vowed to build a wall along the border with Mexico, hire thousands of new immigration agents, ramp up immigrant detention and subject visa applicants to even more rigorous vetting. His administration has been largely silent, however, about the strongest magnet that has drawn millions of immigrants, legal and not, to the United States for generations: jobs.
American employers continue to assume relatively little risk by hiring undocumented immigrants to perform menial, backbreaking work, often for little pay. Meanwhile, as Mr. Trump’s deportation crackdown accelerates, families are being ripped apart, and communities of hard-working immigrants with deep roots in this country are gripped by fear and uncertainty. As long as employers remain off the hook, a border wall and an expanded dragnet can only make temporary dents in the flows of undocumented immigrants.
There was widespread, bipartisan acknowledgment of this reality the last time lawmakers managed to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which outlined a carrots-and-sticks approach to reducing the number of undocumented workers in the American labor force. The bill offered a pathway to citizenship to roughly 2.7 million people who had been living in the United States without permission, set in motion an era of tighter controls at the border and made knowingly hiring undocumented people a crime.
If all had gone as planned, the nation’s population of unauthorized immigrants would have remained small and manageable. Instead, it ballooned to more than 11 million over the years, even as the government vastly beefed up border security and deportations. The main reason: Employer enforcement has been spotty, giving rise to the institutionalization of a wink-and-nod approach to hiring unauthorized workers. The government has sanctioned and prosecuted relatively few employers, because proving that employers willfully hired undocumented workers is hard and because powerful industries have pushed back on initiatives to hold employers accountable.
Soon after the 1986 bill passed, employers and undocumented workers settled into a routine that was well understood in sectors like construction, hospitality and agriculture, which rely heavily on undocumented labor. Workers got fake papers from a thriving forged-documents industry. Employers accepted them at face value, which is as much as they’re required to do under the law.
A decade after the amnesty bill passed, Congress, alarmed by the rapid growth of a new generation of undocumented workers, started a pilot program called E-Verify, intending to make it harder to employ undocumented people.
The system, which was designed to allow employers to cross-reference an applicant’s work-eligibility documents against government records, remains voluntary for most employers two decades after its rollout. E-Verify has been criticized as an intrusive tool that can hurt workers who are wrongly flagged. But the fundamental reason it has not been embraced as a nationwide standard is that even in this era of deepening xenophobia in American politics, there is little appetite among lawmakers to hold employers accountable. Mr. Trump’s flurry of executive orders on immigration have been silent on the issue.
The budget request the Trump administration submitted to Congress last week includes a $2.6 billion down payment for the wall, $1.5 billion to ramp up detention and deportation operations and $314 million to hire immigration agents. Meanwhile, a proposal to make E-Verify compulsory nationwide is allocated a paltry $15 million.
The takeaway is clear. While it has become politically expedient to malign and scapegoat immigrants, Mr. Trump and Republican lawmakers across the country recognize that finding a way to excise them systematically from payrolls would have a crippling effect on several industries. The only long-term solution to this conundrum is returning to the bipartisan consensus that enabled the 1986 bill. This would require giving millions of undocumented immigrants the ability to earn citizenship, then developing a uniform system to verify employment eligibility, and more rigorously prosecuting employers who evade it.
Barring that form of comprehensive reform, American taxpayers will continue bankrolling an expensive, heartless crackdown on immigrants for years on end. Meanwhile, employers will continue to quietly reap the benefits of immigrant labor while looking the other way.
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