Immigration Enforcement Debate Flares

Amendments Highlight Need for Comprehensive Reform

Amendments and Department of Homeland Security action highlight the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) discusses immigration at a press conference. Sessions attached an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill to make the voluntary “e-verify” program permanent. (AP/Susan Walsh)
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) discusses immigration at a press conference. Sessions attached an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill to make the voluntary “e-verify” program permanent. (AP/Susan Walsh)

The Department of Homeland Security FY2010 Appropriations bill last week opened another season in the Senate’s tiresome game of “who can look toughest on illegal immigration?” The object of the game is for sensible immigration reform’s opponents to score illusive political points by offering recycled immigration enforcement amendments and daring their colleagues to oppose. Unfortunately, a majority of Senators blinked this time and voted for several counterproductive amendments, showing yet again how urgent it is for Congress to establish a comprehensive, coherent set of immigration policies and priorities.

Disappointing as it was to watch some elected officials cave to the fear of being falsely painted as soft on illegal immigration, it was clear that virtually no one believed that these proposals constitute real solutions. The political calculation informing the votes was apparent: “Why vote against enforcement measures now and run the risk of a 30-second ad when I’m probably going to vote for similar measures as part of comprehensive immigration reform later this year?”

The reality is that everyone wants an immigration system that can be clearly enforced and that restores the rule of law. But the vast majority of the American public understands that an effective enforcement regime is predicated on the existence of a rational immigration system that serves the nation’s myriad economic, security, and social interests. A quick look at four of the enforcement amendments that passed last week sharpens the point that, without systemic reform, efforts like these will only generate more economic waste, hardship, and dysfunction.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) amendment to make the voluntary “e-verify” program permanent and make it mandatory for all federal contractors: E-verify is the silver bullet solution du jour: “just run all new employees through a federal database and that will solve the illegal immigration problem.” Yet like most easy fixes, this one is too good to be true. Everyone understands that improved electronic employment verification systems must be part of the solution, but as the government itself acknowledges, “e-verify” is not ready for prime time. The underlying databases are inaccurate, the system is misused by employers, and the result is lawful workers are denied employment. Moreover, the cost of implementing a mandatory program on all employers without immigration reform would exceed $22 billion over 10 years.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) amendment to mandate completion of hundreds of miles of border fencing: The Department of Homeland Security wants more technology and enhanced virtual fencing, but openly opposed this irresponsible mandate on the grounds that it will cost more money “with the net effect of less security.” It should go without saying that we must be more efficient in our resource allocation in a severe economic recession, not less.

Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) amendment to prohibit DHS from using money to alter its social security no-match regulation: This amendment was offered in response to DHS’s announcement that it plans to abandon the Bush administration’s regulation seeking to bootstrap social security no-match letters—which tell an employer whether employees’ tax filing social security number matches their name—into immigration enforcement tools. Not only would this regulation lead tens of thousands of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to be erroneously terminated, it would carry an economic cost of $10 billion. Small Entity Impact Analysis of the rule conservatively estimates that up to 70,781 lawful immigrant and U.S. citizen workers will be terminated due to the rule. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce puts this estimate at 165,000.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) amendment authorizing employers to use e-verify to reverify their current workforce: E-verify can currently be used only to verify new employees, with good reason. The Grassley Amendment would authorize employers to require current employees to present photo identification or be terminated. Approximately 21 million U.S. citizens don’t have any government issued photo-identification. A disproportionate number of those citizens are low-income and minorities. Creating additional barriers to employment at a time when workers are struggling to secure and maintain jobs is irresponsible.

Immigration hardliners were able to scare up a majority of votes for these amendments, but a much larger Senate majority recognizes that these measures are no substitute for a comprehensive overhaul. It is instructive to note that each of these amendment sponsors oppose comprehensive immigration reform and hail from states with small numbers of undocumented workers but fairly high unemployment rates.

This is a time-honored strategy for politicians seeking to shirk responsibility: create a boogeyman and redirect blame his way. Instead of owning up to a failure of leadership in producing a 21st-Century economy that serves their constituents, these senators have pivoted to pin the blame on illegal immigrants. That kabuki theater no longer plays well, however, with an electorate thirsting for realistic solutions.

DHS announcements: One step forward, two steps back

Several announcements by DHS last week highlighted the agency’s own struggle to rationalize enforcement of our broken immigration system. The agency displayed internal dissonance by announcing an expansion of e-verify, even while acknowledging the program’s continuing inadequacies and the need for systemic improvements. It is safe to assume that DHS does not view e-verify as anything more than one piece in the comprehensive puzzle given that just two weeks ago the president announced his intention to move immigration reform through Congress and anointed Secretary Janet Napolitano as the leader of that effort. Still, expansion of e-verify is likely to create more problems than it solves without the other elements of reform on the table.

DHS has also indicated its intention to rescind the social security no-match rule. The Social Security Administration has never supported this effort, which would distract SSA from their benefits mission, and which would destabilize the job market at a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty. Hopefully, the Vitter Amendment described above won’t succeed in derailing this sensible decision.

Unfortunately, DHS capped off the week with a Friday afternoon announcement that it plans to expand the so-called 287g program, which authorizes state and local governments to enter into agreements with DHS to assist with immigration enforcement. Police around the country have weighed in loud and clear in opposition to these agreements because of their high costs and adverse effect on community-based policing initiatives. These agreements are still only a point of focus because of Congress’s failure to deliver a functional immigration system. If there weren’t 12 million undocumented people in this country, no state and local governments would consider wasting resources on these agreements.

Last week’s flare-up of activity leads to one inescapable conclusion: Congress and the president must move swiftly toward comprehensive immigration reform that restores the rule of law. Unless and until Congress steps up to the plate and fixes our immigration system, these unproductive skirmishes over failed enforcement policies will continue to impede work on a host of domestic policy objectives. Immigration reform legislation that embraces the following key principles will put an end to the political games played around the issue of illegal immigration: resolve the status of the undocumented; enhance legal immigration channels and labor mobility; protect U.S. workers; foster an inclusive American identity; and adopt smart enforcement policies and safeguards.

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Marshall Fitz

Senior Fellow