The majority of persons who enter the U.S. illegally or unlawfully overstay temporary visas do so for purposes of employment. Employment of such individuals has been illegal since 1986, although that law has never been seriously enforced. If access to employment were curtailed in accord with that law, many (probably even a large majority) of current illegal immigrants would leave the country voluntarily, and the number of future illegal entrants would be greatly reduced.
Since employment is the magnet that draws illegal immigrants into the U.S., it follows that the best way to reduce illegal immigration is to shrink the employment magnet. To accomplish this without rounding up and deporting thousands of illegal workers only to have them return and obtain another readily available job, policy should focus on the businesses that hire illegal immigrants and let general employment rules rather than individual arrests drive the reduction in illegal immigration.
The policy should be based on the principles of empowerment, deterrence,and information. The policy should empower honest employers by giving them the tools to determine quickly and accurately whether a prospective employee is an authorized worker. It should hold employers free from penalty if they inadvertently hire an illegal worker after following the prescribed procedures.
Further, the policy should empower honest employers by freeing them from the burden of competing with dishonest businesses that deliberately hire illegal workers. This means that it must deter dishonest employers who willfully employ unverified and unlawful workers by imposing substantial penalties on the employers when such hiring occurs. For deterrence to work, however, both the government and employers must have timely and accurate information regarding job applicants.
The most promising solution to this problem is E-Verify. A real-time, Web-based verification system run by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, E-Verify can determine with great accuracy the authenticity of the personal information and credentials offered by new hires. In most cases, verification occurs almost instantly.
To achieve sound verification and enforcement policy to reduce unlawful employment, and thereby illegal immigration, Congress must:
- Require universal employment verification to ensure compliance with the existing prohibition on hiring unauthorized workers and thereby deter future waves of illegal immigration. To accomplish this, government should move toward requiring all employers to use E-Verify to confirm the employment eligibility of all new hires and current employees.
- Reauthorize E-Verify and provide adequate funding for implementation. Without action by Congress, E-Verify will expire at the end of March 2009. Given the great promise shown by the program, allowing it to expire would be a waste of taxpayers' investment and a body blow to federal efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigration.
- Increase opportunities to improve E-Verify's data and accuracy and reduce errors. Congress should take steps to improve the quality of data in the databases on which E-Verify relies and give individuals the opportunity to review the accuracy of their records independently of the employment-verification process.
- Penalize employers who continue to employ workers who have failed verification. This simple step will give E-Verify teeth as an effective enforcement tool.
- Increase penalties for unlawful hiring. To deter the employment of unauthorized workers, employers must face real penalties for violating the law. This requires increasing the probability that those who violate the law will be punished and making penalties commensurate with the fruits to employers of illegal hiring.
- Facilitate information sharing between DHS and SSA. Social Security "mismatch" data are a ready source of leads for workplace enforcement of immigration laws but cannot currently be shared with DHS. Congress should state clearly that current law allows sharing of this information for enforcement purposes.
- Require SSA and DHS to issue Social Security mismatch letters to employers. Despite an injunction currently in place, existing law allows mismatch letters to be the basis of immigration enforcement actions. Congress should clarify that it approves this use and require SSA and DHS to undertake it.
- Do not restrict state efforts to limit the employment of illegal aliens. State governments such as Arizona's are leading the national effort to limit the employment of unauthorized workers. Federal legislation should not impede these efforts.
- Establish supplemental procedures to prevent employment by means of identity fraud. E-Verify alone, as currently implemented, cannot identify cases where unauthorized workers steal the identity of a citizen to qualify for work, but slight changes in the program could correct this shortcoming and give legal workers another tool to uncover and fight identity theft.
- Incorporate the current new-hire data collection for child support into E-Verify. The current system for collecting new-hire data to enforce child support obligations is outmoded. Substantial cost savings and gains in efficiency and speed would be had by using E-Verify for this purpose. This would also save time and money for employers.
It is time for Congress to keep its promises and achieve the goal it set 20 years ago. Our political leaders cannot hide behind the "it needs further improvement" mantra forever, because doing so is the functional equivalent of not enforcing the prohibition against hiring illegals in the first place.
E-Verify is the most promising, effective, and useful employment verification tool in use today. Congress should reauthorize E-Verify as it currently exists and work to expand its reach and efficacy significantly in recognition of the fact that the law prohibits employers from hiring illegal immigrants and that the objective of E-Verify is to enforce that law.
Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.