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Enforcement-only approach to immigration has made existing problems worse

Posted: April 25, 2012 - 12:04am

The following editorial appeared in the San Jose Mercury News:

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., always has worked for comprehensive immigration reform. But at a House hearing Wednesday in Washington, she offered a particularly compelling argument against the enforcement-only approach some are promoting: It has actually made the nation’s immigration problems worse.

Lofgren was speaking to the subcommittee on immigration about a proposal by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, to make the E-Verify system mandatory. Employers use E-Verify to check the legal status of job applicants, but as Lofgren explained, it simply does not work. In a Department of Homeland Security study, more than half of the undocumented workers checked by the system were verified as eligible to work here. Why? Because the way Congress created E-Verify left it open to fraud.

In 1986, Congress made it illegal to employ undocumented immigrants, requiring employers to ask for paperwork to verify their eligibility — and creating a booming market for fake Social Security cards.

Then, in 1996, Congress created E-Verify, which is supposed to accept only legitimate Social Security numbers. All that did was cause an explosion in identity theft. Making E-Verify mandatory would only worsen this problem.

Some employers rely on immigrant labor by choice, but many because they can’t find citizens to do hard work on farms and the like. The availability of this work will continue to encourage people to cross the border and to remain here.

“Our system is fundamentally broken,” Lofgren told her colleagues. “For decades, it has failed to provide legal pathways for American industries, like agriculture, to meet their labor needs. If we now tighten the enforcement screws yet again, without fixing the system, we are just going to drive a new and more pernicious form of fraud. That’s the lesson we must heed from history.”

Lofgren also worries that Smith’s proposal would lead to more off-the-books employment. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that making E-Verify mandatory would cost $17.3 billion in lost tax revenue over 10 years, as more workers take to the underground economy.

The system could cost the federal government $1 billion to operate and small businesses $2.6 billion to use. It would put farmers out of business.

And remember, it doesn’t even work.

Mandatory E-Verify doesn’t appear to have the votes to pass in this Congress. But neither does real reform, largely because anything smacking of amnesty is politically toxic. That is hurting employers, and it’s a costly nightmare for the Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to enforce a system that — did we mention it doesn’t work?

We’re disappointed that President Barack Obama has failed to live up to his campaign promise to tackle immigration reform. He has barely pressed on even minimally controversial, business-friendly proposals, such as making it easier for the smartest students from overseas to remain here to start their careers.

Perhaps after this election, reform will be possible. In the meantime, the least Congress can do, as Lofgren says, is avoid making things worse with horrors like E-Verify.

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