The 111th Congress and the new Obama administration should scrap"E-Verify."The federal government's inchoate immigration background checksystem is the culmination of 20 years' failure to create atolerable "internal enforcement" program for U.S. immigration law.Rather than building on past failure, the new Congress andpresident should pull the plug on E-Verify and reform immigrationlaw so that it aligns with the nation's economic need forlabor.
Our country's immigration rules have held an unnatural cap onbringing new American workers to the United States for decades now.The results have been high rates of illegal immigration and largenumbers of illegal immigrants remaining in the country. The"problem" most illegal immigrants present, of course, is theireagerness to enter the labor market, provide goods and services forAmericans' consumption, and grow the U.S. economic pie.
Twenty years ago, though, instead of legalizing the entry ofhard-working people into the United States, Washington came up with"internal enforcement" of immigration law. This is the idea thatmaking it illegal to hire an illegal immigrant could reduce thestrength of this country's "economic magnet." But conscriptingemployers as federal immigration agents has never worked.
E-Verify is a last-ditch attempt to make "internal enforcement"work, butit won't. Creating an accurate electronic employmentverification system would require a national identification systemcosting billions of dollars, and it would take hundreds of millionsmore to run. As much as it stemmed illegal immigration, a nationalID and background check system would send law-abiding Americancitizens into a bureaucratic identity vortex. Even if such a systemwere viable, it would erode too much of Americans' privacy while itgave the federal government more control over the law-abidingcitizen.
Two of the three "internal enforcement" pilot programs commencedin 1996 have been scrapped. The only reason E-Verify survives isthe failure of Congress and the president to enact comprehensiveimmigration law reform. Early in his first term, President Bush hadhoped to make immigration a signature issue. Meetings with Mexicanpresident Vicente Fox in September 2001 laid the groundwork formutually beneficial reform on immigration and trade rules. At theconclusion of his visit with Fox, PresidentBush said, "Fearful people build walls. Confident people tearthem down."
The wave of fear that followed the 9/11 attacks built up thewalls-both figurative and literal. President Bush continued to seekcomprehensiveimmigration law reform throughout his tenure, but withoutsuccess. Congressional Republicans committed to an "enforcementfirst" mantra, and Department of Homeland Security bureaucratsswooned for the budget and power that would come with a nationalworker monitoring system.
After the collapse of a final effort at comprehensive reform in2007, the Bush administration gave in to congressional Republicansand the enforcement-thirsty DHS. In August of that year, DHSsecretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrezannouncedseveral steps to tighten and expand employment eligibilityverification. They proclaimed a rulemaking to require all federalcontractors and vendors to use E-Verify. They announced DHS'sissuance of a "no-match" regulation increasing employers' liabilityif their workers' names and Social Security Numbers do notcorrespond in Social Security Administration records. And they saidthey would "update" the civil fines for hiring illegal immigrantsby 25 percent, expanding criminal investigations of the country'semployers.
The pitchfork-and-torch wing of the Republican caucus may havebeen mollified-DHS certainly got lots of new projects-buttightening the thumbscrews on American businesses and immigrantlaborers did not enthuse the American electorate.
The politics played well for Democrats. A series of hearings inthe House during the spring of 2007 demonstrated their care andfocus on immigration issues. In the fall of 2008, with E-Verify setto expire, the House passed a five-year extension. But the Senatewould only reauthorize E-Verify for a measly four months. Theprogram is now set to expire in early March 2009.
Tellingly, though anti-immigrant groups fumed, Democrats paid noprice in the election, while Republicans took a shellacking.William Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard,summarized the politics on a recent episode of Fox News Sunday(11/9):
There's been a lot of self-inflicted damage byRepublicans. Hispanics-let's take one group. Some politicalscientist did some calculations and told me that if Hispanics hadvoted in 2008 as they had done in 2004, McCain would have carriedFlorida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Totally self-inflicted wound byHouse Republicans, thinking, "Hey, let's be really tough onimmigration and let's demagogue and let's not work with PresidentBush to pass legislation."
The political prescription going forward is clear.Anti-immigrant groups have vocal cords, but they don't have thevoters. There is little risk to Democrats from squelching "internalenforcement" programs like E-Verify. E-Verify reeks ofanti-immigrant animus, and it burdens the business sector withtime-wasting red tape.
House Democrats' pride with the compromise five-yearextension bill they passed is misplaced. Instead of pallingaround with immigrant-bashers, they should move against E-Verify.Republicans will earn nothing but life in the wilderness if theydemagogue against immigrants and work to saddle businesses withregulation. Congress should decline to reauthorize E-Verify, and itshould decline to fund E-Verify.
For all its wonders, technology is not something policymakerscan sprinkle on deep-seated economic and social problems to makethem go away. The nation lacks enthusiasm for E-Verifyand for poisonous, draconian "internal enforcement" in general.
Scrapping E-Verify would close an avenue along which regulatorypower over American citizens would flow to the federal government.Continuing or growing it would draw vastly more information aboutAmericans' lives into federal government databases, and it wouldexpose their sensitive data to more security threats. Theinformation-age crime of identity fraud would blossom under anational E-Verify system because the value of breaking thegovernment's identity system would grow higher. Building a nationalE-Verify system would cost billions of taxpayer dollars (therearen't any to spare), and it would saddle American workers andemployers with more regulatory burdens and criminal liability.
E-Verify should go. There is no alternative but for Congress to repair our brokenimmigration laws by aligning legal immigration with ournation's economic demand for labor.