E-Verify and Common Sense

This weekend, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece full of common sense thinking about immigration control and the E-Verify federal background check system.

“Common sense”—or “what most people think”—is an interesting thing: When generations of direct experience accumulate, common sense becomes one of the soundest guides to action. Think of common law, its source deep in history, molded in tiny increments over hundreds of years. Common law rules against fraud, theft, and violence strike a brilliant balance between harm avoidance and freedom.

When most people lack first-hand knowledge of a topic, though, common sense can go quite wrong. Such is the case with ”common sense” in the immigration area, which is not a product of experience but collective surmise. Douthat, who has the unenviable task of leaping from issue to issue weekly, indulges such surmise and gets it wrong.

Take, for example, the premise that American workers lose when immigration rates are high: “Amnesty,” says Douthat, would “be folly (and a political nonstarter) in this economic climate, which has left Americans without high school diplomas (who tend to lose out from low-skilled immigration) facing a 15 percent unemployment rate.”

On the whole, American workers do not lose out in the face of immigration. To the extent some do, it is penny-wise and pound foolish to retard our economy (in which displaced workers participate) and overall well-being (which affects displaced workers, too) in the name of protecting status quo jobs for a small number of native-borns.

Full immigration reform that includes generous opportunities for new low-skill workers is not folly, whatever its political prospects may be.

But I want to focus on Douthat’s conclusion that E-Verify is the way forward for immigration control. He cites a study finding that Arizona’s adoption of an E-Verify mandate caused the non-citizen Hispanic population of Arizona to fall by roughly 92,000 persons, or 17 percent, over the 2008–2009 period, and concludes:

[M]aybe — just maybe — America’s immigration rate isn’t determined by forces beyond any lawmaker’s control. Maybe public policy can make a difference after all. Maybe we could have an immigration system that looked as if it were designed on purpose, not embraced in a fit of absence of mind.

Though tentative, his implication is that a national E-Verify mandate is the solution. Everything that came before was the product of fevered impulses.  Maybe E-Verify is the most practical solution. Douthat’s calm tone sounds like common sense.

Ah, but neither Douhtat or the authors of the study have thought that problem all the way through (and the study doesn’t claim to): The decline in Arizona was not produced simply by moving illegal immigrants from Arizona back to Mexico and Central America. They went to Washington state and other places in the United States that are less inhospitable to immigrants. A national E-Verify mandate would offer no similar refuge, and the move to underground (or “informal”) employment would occur in larger proportion than it did in Arizona.

The report also cautions that the honeymoon in Arizona may not hold:

[T]he initial effects of the legislation are unlikely to persist if actors in the labor market learn that there are no consequences from violating these laws. Hence, for long-term effectiveness, policymakers should also consider the role of employer sanctions, which have not played a large role in Arizona’s results so far. However, policymakers must weigh the sought-after drop in unauthorized employment against the costs associated with shifting workers into informal employment.

That’s antiseptic language for: investigations of employers, raids on workers, heavy penalties on both, and growth in black markets and a criminal underground. “Balmy” is a way of describing the temperature potatoes pass through in a pressure cooker.

It’s hard, on analysis, to see Arizona’s experience being replicated or improved upon by an E-Verify mandate that’s national in scale without a great deal of discomfort and cost. I surveyed the demerits of electronic employment eligibility verification in “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

There is more not to love in the Douthat piece. Take a look at this shrug-o’-the-shoulders to the deep flaws in the concept of “internal enforcement” and E-Verify:

Arizona business interests called it unfair and draconian. (An employer’s business license is suspended for the first offense and revoked for the second.) Civil liberties groups argued that the E-Verify database’s error rate is unacceptably high, and that the law creates a presumptive bias against hiring Hispanics. If these arguments sound familiar, it’s because similar critiques are always leveled against any attempt to actually enforce America’s immigration laws. From the border to the workplace, immigration enforcement is invariably depicted as terribly harsh, hopelessly expensive and probably racist into the bargain.

We should disregard these problems because they’re familiar? With regard to E-Verify, they’re familiar because they are the natural consequence of dragooning the productive sector into enforcing maladjusted laws against free movement of people from a particular ethnic category to where their labor is most productive.

Problem-solving is welcome, and columnists like Ross Douthat have to at least point to a solution with regularity. But this effort, sounding in common sense, does not rise to the challenge. The solution is not even more enforcement of laws inimical to human freedom. The solution is reforming immigration laws to comport with … common sense!