Politics & Policy

Enforcement Sense

The House of Representatives will have an opportunity this week to show the nation–and the White House–that it means to impose some order on the chaos that is our immigration system. That opportunity will come when the House debates Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s H.R. 4437, an immigration-enforcement bill approved last week by the Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote. The bill is a good first step toward ending immigration anarchy, but it’s a first step only.

The most important element of Sensenbrenner’s legislation would enroll all employers in the online system that verifies Social Security numbers of new hires. This measure is 20 years overdue; in 1986, Congress prohibited the employment of illegal aliens, but opponents of immigration control neutered the bill by removing the mandate for an electronic verification system. This left employers facing a blizzard of fake documents and no way to know who the illegals were. Even worse, employers who looked too closely at the bogus documents could be (and were) sued by the Justice Department for discrimination.

In 1996, Congress finally provided for an experimental verification program, called the Basic Pilot, which has been road-tested for nearly a decade now. The main drawback has been that participation is voluntary–so that an employer in an immigrant-heavy industry who signs up puts himself at a disadvantage, as his non-participating competitors are still able to hire illegals. Making electronic verification of Social Security numbers an integral part of the hiring process is a crucial step toward leveling the playing field.

The other provisions in the bill are less important but still positive. Most notably, the bill would make illegal presence in the United States a criminal offense. Right now, only entering illegally is a criminal offense: Simply being here illegally is a civil violation. Consequently, if the government wishes to open criminal proceedings against an alien, it must figure out where he jumped the border and prosecute him there. (Unsurprisingly, that never happens.) By making it a crime simply to be an illegal alien, the Sensenbrenner bill would allow the prosecution of illegals wherever they are arrested. The government would still have the option of going after them with the civil code, but it would be free to use criminal proceedings as warranted.

The bill would also make overstaying a visa a criminal offense–and since visa-overstayers account for perhaps one-third of illegal aliens, this step is long overdue. Further, the bill would provide for more enforcement personnel and resources, as well as increased penalties for alien smuggling and gang membership.

Some will want to present this bill as solving our enforcement problem, clearing the way for the president’s amnesty and guestworker program, which the Senate is expected to consider early next year. But as valuable as the Sensenbrenner reforms are, they remain incomplete. One addition is especially needed: a provision that would systematize cooperation between state and local police and federal immigration authorities, ensuring that the feds will take illegals off the hands of local police forces that run into them in the course of normal duties.

“Promises of enforcement

have been made, and

broken, before.”

In any case, the mere passage of reforms shouldn’t be seen as a green light to start importing millions of new foreign workers, much less to legalize the aliens already here. Only after the enforcement measures are fully operational–fully funded, fully manned, fully supported–should we discuss whether specific industries can’t find enough “willing workers” among native-born Americans and legal immigrants. Even then, we should encourage those industries to try what most industries do when they need to attract more workers: Raise wages. (We suspect, along with Adam Smith, that the economy will be perfectly able to match supply and demand.) If Congress nonetheless decides to craft specific changes to the immigration law to help those industries, it should do so as part of an overhaul of legal immigration. Current law has enabled an ever-rising flow of immigration–as a new analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies demonstrates–but it is far from obvious that the size and composition of this flow are ideal for our economic needs.

Promises of enforcement have been made, and broken, before. It may well be that the administration can be trusted to start enforcing immigration laws if a foreign-worker program is passed, but experience–and particularly the disastrous consequences of the 1986 amnesty–should make us leery of assuming that is the case. Congress would do best to emulate President Reagan’s example on another matter: Trust, but verify.


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