May 24, 2008

Immigration Theater

from the Wallstreet Journal, page A10
May 24, 2008

Federal immigration officials raided an Iowa meatpacking plant this month in what is being called the largest operation of its kind in U.S. history. Nearly 400 of the plant's 900 employees were arrested on immigration charges. Do you feel safer?

Ever since immigration reform died in Congress last year, the Bush Administration has made a show of stepping up enforcement. But do homeland security officials really have nothing better to do than raid businesses that hire willing workers – especially in states like Iowa, where the jobless rate is 3.5%? These immigrants are obviously responding to a labor shortage for certain jobs. Giving them a legal way to enter the country would free up homeland security money and manpower to focus on real threats.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, lawmakers continue to ignore this economic reality and pretend that illegal immigration is nothing more than a law enforcement issue. The good news is that their latest attempt to turn employers into immigration police appears to have stalled.

The Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act (SAVE) was introduced by Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat. The bill does nothing to increase legal immigration, which is the only realistic way to decrease illegal immigration. Instead, it throws more money at a mandatory employment verification system (E-Verify) for the nation's six million employers.

The Democrats never intended to pass the measure, mind you. While collecting co-sponsors, Mr. Shuler assured Democrats there would be no action this year. The idea was to provide election-year cover for House Democrats from red states, letting them cite the Shuler bill as proof they are cracking down on illegal immigration.

However, Republicans saw an opportunity to embarrass Democrats by forcing a floor vote on the SAVE Act. Restrictionists Brian Bilbray and Tom Tancredo began a discharge petition drive in early March, eventually gathering 189 of the 218 signatures needed to force a House vote on the bill. Democrats are now backing off the legislation, lest it divide their caucus.

Rahm Emanuel, the Blue Dog patron in the House leadership, told reporters that a recent Congressional Budget Office report had given him pause. The CBO estimated SAVE would cost more that $30 billion in lost tax revenues and spending because it would increase the number of employers and workers who resort to the black market outside of the tax system. (At last, dynamic scoring at CBO!)

Mr. Emanuel is also getting an earful from others in his party, notably Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Members of the Hispanic Caucus have made it clear that in a presidential election year when John McCain is partial to comprehensive immigration reform, Latino lawmakers can make life difficult for Democrats.

This political theater notwithstanding, the SAVE Act deserves to die on the merits. E-Verify is pitched as a check on undocumented workers. But this law would require that every worker in the country run this new verification gauntlet to change jobs.

E-Verify is currently a voluntary pilot program for new workers. About 50,000 employers use it, and studies have revealed problems galore, partly because the Social Security Administration (SSA) database on which it relies contains an error rate of around 4%. With about 55 million new hires in the U.S. annually, a 4% error rate means erroneously flagging some two million people each year. They would then have to visit their local SSA office to prove in person that they have permission to work in their native land.

Keep in mind that the SSA isn't exactly a model of speed and efficiency. By its own admission 50% of calls to branch offices and 25% to the 1-800 number aren't even answered. And what of calls that do get through? It currently takes, on average, more than 500 days to get a decision on a disability appeal. Even if E-Verify were ready for prime time, there's little chance it would reduce illegal immigration. As the CBO analysis concluded, an employment verification mandate is more likely to drive illegal aliens – most of whom now work on the books – into the underground economy, not out of the country.

It's also easy to lose perspective. Restrictionists insist that we're in the middle of an illegal alien "crisis." Yet illegal immigrant workers in the U.S. number about seven million, which is less than 5% of an overall workforce of 145 million people. Is this problem really big enough to justify a centralized federal government file on every U.S. worker?

You'd think Republicans would dislike a law that creates more expense and headaches for employers who are already overregulated. Instead, GOP lawmakers keep fooling themselves that immigration is an electoral winner, while Democrats like Rahm Emanuel ponder which wing of the caucus to placate.

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