The Agenda

Ron Unz on Immigration, Part II: The Immigration Enforcement Dilemma

Before discussing Ron Unz’s article directly — I promise to get to it before too long — I want to briefly talk about how we talk about immigration enforcement. During the Fox News/Google debate, we heard a lot of talk from the Republican presidential candidates about the need for a fence along our border with Mexico, for aviation assets, and for a mandatory e-verify system. A large number (roughly half, according to Unz) of unauthorized workers arrive legally and simply overstay their visas, which is to say that border enforcement won’t do quite as much good as its advocates believe it will. That same criticism doesn’t extend to an e-verify system, and the immigration enforcement discourse has increasingly shifted to the idea of employer sanctions and the creation of “foolproof” biometric identification systems. Rather than limit immigration enforcement to efforts to harden our southern border, the argument goes, we need to create a simple national database that every employer in the country will use to verify the legal status of every hire. Ron Paul, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the only candidate to raise concerns about the civil liberties implications of a mandatory e-verify system, and with good reason.

But it is also worth recognizing that there are practical limitations to such a system. Recently, Tim Lee of Ars Technica wrote an essay on the potential problems facing mandatory e-verify:

Ars discussed the e-verify proposal with the ACLU’s Chris Calabrese. He said that the accuracy of the system has improved over the years, but that independent government reports have suggested that it still has an error rate of around 0.8 percent. That’s pretty good, but in a nation of 300 million people, that would mean approximately 1.2 million American citizens and documented immigrants would receive a “tentative non-confirmation” and be forced to spend a day at the Social Security Administration trying to get their paperwork straightened out. Even worse, 0.5 percent of authorized workers, or about 770,000 people, would be unable to correct their paperwork problems in time to save their jobs.

Calabrese cited the example of a Florida telecommunications worker who took a well-paying job, but was rejected by the e-verify system. She went to the Social Security Administration, who told her her records looked fine. But the employer continued to get non-confirmations from the system. After months of fighting with bureaucracy, she was finally forced to take a new, lower-paying job. Calabrese said she later learned that the problem was a data-entry error by her employer.

Calabrese argued that the story points to serious due-process problems with the system. “You essentially have no remedy” if a mistake is made, he said. “If everyone says ‘it’s not my fault,’ you’re basically out of luck.” This can be especially hard on workers with limited skills and education; they often have neither the time nor the sophistication to navigate the federal bureaucracy and vindicate their right to work. …

Mandatory e-verify is strongly supported by anti-immigration activists and many Republicans. But it is opposed by many Democrats and immigration advocates. And it also faces significant opposition from Tea Party activists. In a Thursday letter to members of Congress, a coalition of conservative groups warned that the legislation would create a de facto national ID system and harm small businesses.

An obvious rejoinder to this line of thinking could be that a national ID system wouldn’t be such a bad thing, a view widely embraced in western Europe. Bruce Schneier wrote an excellent article in 2004 on the downsides of a national ID system:

It doesn’t really matter how well an ID card works when used by the hundreds of millions of honest people that would carry it. What matters is how the system might fail when used by someone intent on subverting that system: how it fails naturally, how it can be made to fail, and how failures might be exploited. …


[T]he main problem with any ID system is that it requires the existence of a database. In this case it would have to be an immense database of private and sensitive information on every American — one widely and instantaneously accessible from airline check-in stations, police cars, schools, and so on.

The security risks are enormous. Such a database would be a kludge of existing databases; databases that are incompatible, full of erroneous data, and unreliable. As computer scientists, we do not know how to keep a database of this magnitude secure, whether from outside hackers or the thousands of insiders authorized to access it.

And when the inevitable worms, viruses, or random failures happen and the database goes down, what then? Is America supposed to shut down until it’s restored?

Proponents of national ID cards want us to assume all these problems, and the tens of billions of dollars such a system would cost — for what? For the promise of being able to identify someone?

What good would it have been to know the names of Timothy McVeigh, the Unabomber, or the DC snipers before they were arrested? Palestinian suicide bombers generally have no history of terrorism. The goal is here is to know someone’s intentions, and their identity has very little to do with that.

And there are security benefits in having a variety of different ID documents. A single national ID is an exceedingly valuable document, and accordingly there’s greater incentive to forge it. There is more security in alert guards paying attention to subtle social cues than bored minimum-wage guards blindly checking IDs.

That’s why, when someone asks me to rate the security of a national ID card on a scale of one to 10, I can’t give an answer. It doesn’t even belong on a scale.

E-verify and biometric ID systems are the ideas that our best and brightest have devised for a technological solution. And as Schneier makes clear, the ideas aren’t very good. Indeed, Schneier didn’t introduce the alarming but entirely plausible possibility that a rival state might gain access to sensitive data.

Douglas Massey, who is very much on the left, offers a dark portrait of how immigration enforcement efforts have shaped the process of immigrant assimilation in a recent op-ed:

In the early 1990s the United States began militarizing its border with Mexico in an effort to halt unauthorized migration. This disrupted a significant but largely circular flow of illegal migrants: according to estimates from the Mexican Migration Project, between 1965 and 1985, for every 100 undocumented entries there were 85 undocumented departures, yielding only a small net increase in the undocumented population each year.

Because of the irresistible draw of the American economy, militarization of the border didn’t really affect undocumented in-migration, but it did reduce out-migration — migrants knew that once they left it would be hard to get back in. Whereas there were an estimated 3 million undocumented migrants in 1990, the number rose thereafter to peak around 12 million in 2007 and 2008, at which point half of all Salvadoran immigrants, 60 percent of all Mexican immigrants and two-thirds of Guatemalan and Honduran immigrants were here illegally.

Thus the sudden creation of a new class of people, working low-wage jobs outside the legal labor markets. Not only was it difficult for them to safely accumulate wealth, but they were left uniquely vulnerable to economic exploitation — such as the promise of a mortgage with little documentation required at signing.

Massey is an advocate of amnesty and I am not. Opponents of amnesty need to reckon with his arguments, however, and think hard about what might be more effective solutions for dealing with a large undocumented population. 

Moreover, Massey has argued that Americans of Mexican origin have also been impacted by immigration enforcement measures in troubling ways:

The implementation of employer sanctions increased discrimination against Hispanics in U.S. labor markets, lowering their wages, depressing the returns to human capital, and closing off long-established pathways of upward mobility. At the same time, IRCA promoted a wholesale shift to subcontracting in the unskilled labor market. The militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border, meanwhile, raised the rate of undocumented population growth to increase the number of people in exploitable, powerless categories. Finally, as private discrimination increased and larger shares of the population were being exploited economically, Congress increased the social penalties for being poor, Hispanic, foreign, and undocumented, cutting even legal immigrants off from public services for which they had heretofore qualified.

As a result of these deliberate policy actions, the political economy facing Hispanics is now vastly harsher and more punitive than the one prevailing before 1986. Historically, Hispanics have occupied a middle position between blacks and whites in the American stratification system, but with the restructuring of the political economy of immigration in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the relative standing of Hispanics declined and they came to replace African Americans at the bottom of the class hierarchy.

What is most fascinating about Unz’s proposal is that it doesn’t share the flaws of the technological approach and it addresses the “racialization” dynamic that concerns Massey in a way that might achieve widespread acceptance, including from Americans of Mexican origin. Unz offers the most sophisticated treatment of the immigration enforcement question from an opponent of amnesty I’ve encountered thus far. Briefly, here is Unz’s take on existing efforts to curb illegal immigration:


[E]ven strictly enforcing existing immigration laws is almost impossible in our current political and media climate. Although the press has recently highlighted the hundreds of thousands of undocumented residents annually deported under the Obama administration—and this has sparked a sharp political backlash among his pro-immigrant supporters—such a number is negligible compared to the estimated total of 11 million or so. Only the most utterly egregious employers of those workers have ever paid serious penalties, and the dollars involved are usually trivial compared to the economic benefits of ignoring the law. In almost all cases, “employer sanctions” have amounted to just a (small) cost of doing business. When both worker and employer have a strong mutual interest in evading a law, enforcement becomes very difficult and cumbersome, just as we have seen in the case of our endlessly violated drug laws.

Even so, attacking the employment side of the equation remains the most effective approach. Virtually all immigrants come here for jobs, so eliminating government benefits would merely serve to further immiserate millions of families, who would remain in this country regardless. Having immigration agents conduct random sweeps through ethnic neighborhoods would engender enormous fear and anger and also deter immigrants from reporting crimes, while constituting a massive violation of traditional civil liberties. Even building a fence and doubling the border-patrol would probably have just a small impact across such an enormously long border, not least because an estimated one-half of all illegal immigrants enter the country legally and then overstay their visas. If the magnetic appeal of the American job market could somehow be reduced or eliminated, such ancillary measures might prove useful, but if the jobs remain, the immigrants will remain here as well.

The distinctive aspect of Unz’s approach is how he goes about addressing the employment side of the question, to which we’ll return. 



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