Politics & Policy

Yes, We Can Enforce

What the Supreme Court’s E-Verify decision symbolizes.

After it passed a robust immigration-enforcement measure last year, Arizona was practically expelled from the union.

The great and good denounced the state for its Gestapo tactics. The Obama administration sued it. The professionally outraged announced boycotts. Arizona stood condemned before the world, a byword for hatred and defiance of federal law.

And yet the Supreme Court last week implicitly ratified Arizona’s leadership role on immigration enforcement. It’s everyone else who is out of line, not Arizona.

The Supreme Court upheld the state’s requirement that businesses use the federal E-Verify system — a database accessible through the Internet — to confirm the legal status of employees. This is different from last year’s law saying that police should, when practicable, check the immigration status of suspected illegal immigrants, but the echoes are clear enough. The same critics (the business community and civil-rights groups) used the same tactics (loud condemnations and lawsuits) over the same essential issue (whether the state had gone beyond federal law).

Arizona passed the E-Verify law in 2007, and the Chamber of Commerce fought it all the way to the Supreme Court. The organization’s courtroom tenacity shows just how dangerous it is to get between the Chamber and its illegal employees. The dirty little secret of the Chamber is not, as the Democrats shamelessly alleged in the 2010 elections, Chinese money; it’s Mexican workers.

The Chamber maintained that Arizona had gone too far in requiring E-Verify because Congress had only made the program voluntary. But Congress didn’t forbid states from mandating the program. The Arizona law is careful to stay within the bounds set out by Congress. The punishment in Arizona for knowingly hiring illegal workers is the loss of a business license. Federal law says that states may “through licensing and similar laws” sanction businesses employing illegal immigrants.

Congress has been adept through the years at passing laws and programs notionally targeting illegal immigration, but with no intention of acting on them. It’s enforcement by pretense. Arizona’s offense is to take the federal law at face value and act on it. So if Congress creates a widely ignored voluntary system to verify the status of employees, Arizona will actually use it as a tool of enforcement. 

According to an Institute for the Study of Labor report, Arizona accounts for one-third of all employers nationwide enrolled in E-Verify. Roughly 700,000 of Arizona’s new hires between October 2008 and September 2009 were checked with E-Verify, about half of all the state’s new hires.

This increased attention to the legal status of employees has had the effect any reasonable person would expect — it has made it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs and therefore made Arizona less hospitable terrain. The Institute for the Study of Labor finds a statistically significant reduction in the state’s population of Hispanic noncitizens, a category overlapping heavily with illegal immigrants. The result holds even when accounting for the recession. The study looked at Arizona’s population of Hispanic naturalized citizens — who are obviously not targeted by the law — and found no such decline.

The Supreme Court decision will encourage other states to follow Arizona’s lead. Already, South Carolina, Utah, and Mississippi have passed similar laws. As more and more states make E-Verify mandatory, it will make more sense for Congress to require the system nationwide.

There are shopworn objections to any kind of immigration enforcement. We are told that the simple expedient of building a fence on our southern border is a gross un-American symbol of exclusion. Is it also un-American to ask that employers do a few clicks of due diligence to ensure that they are abiding by the nation’s laws? We are told we can’t deport 11 million people. Is it impossible, too, to make it a little harder to come here and find a job?

Slowly, we are beginning to move from a culture of permissiveness to a culture of enforcement on illegal immigration. For that, we can all say, “Thank you, Arizona.”

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail at comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate

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