Where Is the Push for E-Verify?

Field workers pick strawberries on a farm in Oxnard, Calif., in 2013. (Reuters photo: Gus Ruelas)
In the immigration debate, both parties have kept an important policy off the negotiating table.

Something besides good faith is missing from the ongoing immigration negotiations. Republicans want to pair an amnesty for the “Dreamers” with enforcement measures that would tighten the immigration system. But conspicuously absent from their wish list is E-Verify, an electronic system through which an employer can ascertain whether a job applicant is in the country legally. E-Verify already exists, but using it is not mandatory — and nobody, even among the most restrictionist Republicans, is demanding that it become so.

It would seem a natural demand to make. Any amnesty could send a signal that we are unwilling to enforce our immigration laws, thereby encouraging more border crossings. Since most illegal immigrants come here to work, E-Verify would counter that signal — and it could encourage some of the current stock of illegal immigrants to return home, too. The measure also happens to be popular, with more than 75 percent of Americans supporting it in both 2012 and 2016.

But Republicans have asked for other measures instead. Last week, the White House asked for wall funding, the curtailing of chain migration (once a backlog is cleared), and the end to the diversity visa lottery in exchange for an amnesty of 1.8 million Dreamers.

Democrats rejected the proposal out of hand, but that doesn’t mean Republicans will reconsider E-Verify. In the context of a Dreamer deal, maximalist Democrats are just as opposed to internal enforcement as they are to changes to border security or chain migration. Daniel Costa, a policy analyst for the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, says Democrats “oppose the measure in the context of not legalizing the current undocumented population.”

One reason for their opposition is sheer political calculus. The party relies on Latinos as a constituency, and hopes to one day clear a pathway to citizenship for the more than 10 million illegal immigrants currently in the country, so it would be counterproductive for Democrats to support a policy that encouraged these immigrants to return home. A study in the IZA Journal of Migration found that mandatory E-Verify policies implemented at the state level diverted some illegal workers to other states and caused others to leave the country altogether.

Costa disagrees with this analysis. He argues that E-Verify won’t cause people to self-deport, but rather “push unauthorized workers farther into the informal labor market, which will push labor standards down for everybody else.” Of course, businesses can be punished for illegal hiring practices — and as Jessica Vaughan for the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies has argued, E-Verify makes it easier to punish them.

“Democrats aren’t as opposed to the idea as you might think,” Costa says. Indeed, elements of the pro-labor Left have supported E-Verify before. In 2013, Jon Tester (D., Mont.) worked with Rob Portman (R., Ohio) to insert mandatory E-Verify language into the bipartisan Gang of Eight bill — which also contained a path to citizenship for the current population of illegal immigrants — and Costa argued for internal enforcement on the grounds that it would confer benefits to American workers. If Republicans were insisting on the provision, perhaps red-state Democrats up for reelection — such as, say, Tester — would be willing to negotiate.

It’s not necessarily Big Business and the donor class that stand in the way of E-Verify.

But the GOP has been reluctant — and it’s not necessarily Big Business and the donor class that stand in the way of E-Verify. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has endorsed the provision, preferring a consistent nationwide policy to the congeries of state laws we currently have. And it’s not libertarian Republicans blocking the measure, either, though they fear of the creation of a centralized national registry of employable citizens. Nobody ever accused Republicans of taking privacy concerns seriously enough to tank a policy they otherwise supported.

Vested agricultural interests are the real reason the GOP is lukewarm on E-Verify. The farm lobby opposes the measure because farms rely on migrant laborers. The Department of Labor estimates that 46 percent of farm workers are in the country illegally, while other estimates approach 70 percent. Agriculture looms large in red farm-belt states, and is thus well-entrenched at the party’s commanding heights. The farm lobby even left its imprint on the immigration bill introduced by congressman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), which is generally far stricter than the president’s proposal. That bill contains a provision for mandatory E-Verify, but in order to stave off opposition from agriculture, it also includes a provision replacing the current program for temporary agricultural workers (H-2A) with one that is far more lenient (H-2C).

So opposition from Democrats combined with internal divisions among Republicans has been enough to kill the idea of a simple E-Verify trade. The best indication that E-Verify would be effective is that the two parties keep it at arms’ length.


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