End the lure of employment

Keeping out North Koreans?
Keeping out North Koreans?

As many as 8 million undocumented immigrants hold jobs in the U.S. In fact, they account for more than 5 percent of the U.S. labor force. Their unemployment rate might even be lower than that of the nation’s black citizens.

And, stereotypes aside, the undocumented are hardly relegated to agriculture and domestic service. Construction, manufacturing and retail are among their biggest employers, according to the Migration Policy Institute. So, either quite a few of the nation’s 6 million employers have welcomed undocumented workers into their factories and stores, or a smaller number of employers have hired an awful lot of them.

Either way, little is being done to stop the practice. Workplace enforcement is minimal. Fines are small. Amid all the political bellowing about the border, no one in Washington pays much attention to employers’ practices.

Yet with 95,000 miles of shoreline, 500 commercial airports and a northern border that’s twice as long as its southern one, the U.S. could transform its Southwest into North Korea and still not stem the flow of undocumented immigrants seeking work, many of whom simply overstay legitimate visas. The only way to make meaningful progress is to end the lure of employment.

That will require fewer additional resources for border patrol and more for workplace enforcement, such as E-Verify. This electronic employment verification system, administered by the Department of Homeland Security, has been a qualified success. From 2007 to 2012, E-Verify queries from employers increased to more than 21 million, from 3.3 million. As of February 2013, more than 432,000 employers were using the system to confirm the eligibility of prospective employees.

E-Verify can still be gamed. One independent study found that during a three-month period in 2008, about half the unauthorized workers whose backgrounds it checked were nonetheless approved for work. But DHS has been upgrading the system so that it can access additional databases and more carefully filter applications.

As the system improves, of course, the demand for high-quality identity fraud stands to increase commensurately — as does off-the-books employment of undocumented workers. If Congress is serious about turning off the flow of undocumented immigrants, it will have to give DHS the resources it needs for workplace enforcement, including on-site inspections.

This would not please some of the business interests that fund both political parties. Nor would it placate those for whom any extravagance is justified by a cry of “Secure the border!” But it would weaken the magnet that draws undocumented immigrants to the U.S. in the first place. The House has stalled progress on immigration reform. If it is going to make the nation wait for a solution, it should recognize that the place to stop the inflow is not at the point of entry, but at the point of hire.

The catch is that this crackdown will have little to do with the U.S.-Mexico border. The Senate bill already includes a staggering $46 billion for border control, doubling the size of the patrol force (which is already double its 2004 size).

The House Homeland Security Committee has put forward its own, far cheaper immigration security bill, but it still suffers from Washington’s obsession with the border. Politicians from varied and distant locales relish demanding militarization down yonder while continuing to ignore the reality of illegal immigration in their own backyards.

Source: Bloomberg