Our country’s immigration rules have held an unnatural cap on bringing new American workers to the United States for decades now. The results have been high rates of illegal immigration and large numbers of illegal immigrants remaining in the country. The “problem” most illegal immigrants present, of course, is their eagerness to enter the labor market, provide goods and services for Americans’ consumption, and grow the U.S. economic pie.
Twenty years ago, though, instead of legalizing the entry of hard‐working people into the United States, Washington came up with “internal enforcement” of immigration law. This is the idea that making it illegal to hire an illegal immigrant could reduce the strength of this country’s “economic magnet.” But conscripting employers as federal immigration agents has never worked.
E‐Verify is a last‐ditch attempt to make “internal enforcement” work, but it won’t. Creating an accurate electronic employment verification system would require a national identification system costing billions of dollars, and it would take hundreds of millions more to run. As much as it stemmed illegal immigration, a national ID and background check system would send law‐abiding American citizens into a bureaucratic identity vortex. Even if such a system were viable, it would erode too much of Americans’ privacy while it gave the federal government more control over the law‐abiding citizen.
Two of the three “internal enforcement” pilot programs commenced in 1996 have been scrapped. The only reason E‐Verify survives is the failure of Congress and the president to enact comprehensive immigration law reform. Early in his first term, President Bush had hoped to make immigration a signature issue. Meetings with Mexican president Vicente Fox in September 2001 laid the groundwork for mutually beneficial reform on immigration and trade rules. At the conclusion of his visit with Fox, President Bush said, “Fearful people build walls. Confident people tear them down.”
The wave of fear that followed the 9/11 attacks built up the walls‐both figurative and literal. President Bush continued to seek comprehensive immigration law reform throughout his tenure, but without success. Congressional Republicans committed to an “enforcement first” mantra, and Department of Homeland Security bureaucrats swooned for the budget and power that would come with a national worker monitoring system.
After the collapse of a final effort at comprehensive reform in 2007, the Bush administration gave in to congressional Republicans and the enforcement‐thirsty DHS. In August of that year, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced several steps to tighten and expand employment eligibility verification. They proclaimed a rulemaking to require all federal contractors and vendors to use E‐Verify. They announced DHS’s issuance of a “no‐match” regulation increasing employers’ liability if their workers’ names and Social Security Numbers do not correspond in Social Security Administration records. And they said they would “update” the civil fines for hiring illegal immigrants by 25 percent, expanding criminal investigations of the country’s employers.
The pitchfork‐and‐torch wing of the Republican caucus may have been mollified‐DHS certainly got lots of new projects‐but tightening the thumbscrews on American businesses and immigrant laborers did not enthuse the American electorate.
The politics played well for Democrats. A series of hearings in the House during the spring of 2007 demonstrated their care and focus on immigration issues. In the fall of 2008, with E‐Verify set to expire, the House passed a five‐year extension. But the Senate would only reauthorize E‐Verify for a measly four months. The program is now set to expire in early March 2009.
Tellingly, though anti‐immigrant groups fumed, Democrats paid no price 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):