Jobs are the key on immigration

April 12, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- The debate over immigration reform has turned into those who say it's time to get tough and those who say it's time to get real. One side favors building a wall along the Mexican border and treating people who sneak in as felons. The other side wants to give those already here a chance to acquire legal status while making it easier to come under the blessing of the law.

Both sides argue that their approach is the key to stemming the tide of illegal immigration. And both have a point. Stricter monitoring is essential if we hope to gain control of our borders. But since we are not about to deport 12 million undocumented foreigners, we had better find a way to bring them out of the shadows.

Neither approach will work unless we eliminate the main magnet for illegal immigration: jobs. Mexicans and other foreigners don't make huge sacrifices to come here because they like the climate in Chicago or the theme parks in Florida. They come to find jobs paying far more than they can make back home.

Considering that so many people have a powerful reason to come, it's a delusion to think that Border Patrol agents or even a 2,000-mile wall can keep them out.

About 40 percent of those who are here illegally didn't come illegally. On a typical day, says Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute in Washington, "680,000 foreign-born people arrive in the United States legally, three-quarters of them by land."

Nor will guest-worker visas or "earned legalization" reduce the pull. These programs do offer foreign job-seekers a way to stay without fear of being caught and deported while gaining the protection of American labor regulations. But as long as many employers are willing to hire people regardless of their status, there will be a supply of illegal workers.

Why would anyone want to hire an illegal worker rather than a legal one? Because they're cheaper and more compliant. As long as unscrupulous employers can get away with it, they will use illegal immigrants to their advantage.

In the old days, it was not against the law to hire illegal immigrants. The 1986 immigration measure was the first to impose civil and criminal penalties for anyone who knowingly hired unauthorized workers. Employers were required to demand evidence from each new hire that he or she was entitled to be here. This was supposed to dry up the demand for illegal immigrants.

It was a good theory that was soon punctured by reality: The documents workers had to provide, such as birth certificates or naturalization papers, were easy to forge, and employers were not expected to prove their authenticity. So foreign workers had the same incentives to come here and employers had the same incentives to hire them.

Nothing will change unless we replace the existing porous barrier with an airtight one. That means establishing a counterfeit-proof method for companies to check the status of workers. The legislation being considered in Congress requires the Department of Homeland Security to create a mandatory system for verifying each employee's eligibility.

But is it worth it? The American Civil Liberties Union warns that the new system would lead to a national ID card "linked to a massive government database containing sensitive, personally identifiable information about every resident in the United States."

In any case, says the Government Accountability Office, the new system will also cost nearly $12 billion a year. Given the record of DHS so far, it may be prone to errors, causing countless headaches for businesses and workers.

Some state-of-the-art identification program may be needed to keep out not just undocumented workers but also foreign terrorists. In the post-9/11 world, we may have little choice but to establish a system by which the government can determine quickly and conclusively who is permitted to be here and who is not.

Whether the benefits of that system outweigh the disadvantages is open to debate. But without it, any immigration measure will be only an elaborate formula for preserving the status quo.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.