Sunday, September 23, 2007

America's Immigration Charade

The United States is not serious about immigration enforcement, argues Christopher Jencks in his recent article on immigration at the New York Review of Books.

Immigration "control" is all a charade, he argues. Unless the federal government is willing to seriously enforce workplace sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants, there will aways be demand for foreign workers, and no amount of border enforcement will do the trick in deterring alien newcomers.

Probably the most controversial measure in this year's failed immigration reform bill was the call for blanket amnesty (which supporters called legalization). Jencks notes why the amnesty issue is so important for the future of reform:

One reason legalization arouses such intense opposition among "law and order" advocates is that they see little evidence that the federal government will ever make a serious effort to prevent further illegal immigration in the future. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was supposed to be a compromise that linked amnesty to a crackdown on firms that hired illegal immigrants in the future. But once IRCA passed, the amnesty was implemented while the crackdown never occurred. As a result, the number of illegal immigrants kept growing. This history has sent out a worldwide message: if you are an unskilled worker who dreams of living in America, your best bet is to find a way into the United States, get a job, and wait for a new amnesty.
From this observation, Jencks delves into his analysis of workplace enforcement and border security (the two basic strategies of immigration control). The federal government overwhelmingly stresses border enforcement over employer sanctions because poor illegal migrants compose a weak interest group constituency (where business lobbies generate powerful demands for economic protection). Yet, some of the most perverse problems in immigration are found at the intersection of illegal employment and government economic policies, like taxation and Social Security. Notes Jencks:

Policing the places where immigrants work can...reduce the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States, because it can reduce the number of jobs open to them and thus eliminate a principal reason for coming here. Nonetheless, the United States has never made much effort to reduce employers' willingness to hire illegal immigrants. Only fifteen firms were fined more than $5,000 for employing unauthorized immigrants in 1990, and the number dropped to twelve in 1994, two in 1998, and zero in 2004. The number of hours spent on worksite inspections also fell by more than half between 1999 and 2003. After September 11, 2001, inspections also focused more on airports, nuclear power plants, and other likely terrorist targets. Illegal immigrants who avoided such employers were therefore even less likely than before to be arrested on the job.

Inspections at workplaces did pick up after 2004. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made five times as many worksite arrests in 2006 as in 2004. But even in 2006 ICE made fewer than five thousand worksite arrests, so an illegal worker still had less than one chance in a thousand of getting arrested at work. (Once arrested, those with neither proof of American citizenship nor a valid visa are supposed to be deported, but it is not clear how often this happens.)

Under current law employers have to check a job applicant's documents, but they are not responsible for determining whether those documents are authentic. That seems reasonable. Yet as Peter Salins, a political scientist at the State University of New York, recently pointed out in The New York Times, the federal government could check the authenticity of workers' documents soon after they are hired without even visiting worksites. Informed estimates suggest that roughly seven million people are working in the United States illegally.

About half these men and women are thought to hold regular jobs, while the rest work off the books. To get a regular job workers must give their employer a Social Security number. Employers send these numbers to the Social Security Administration (SSA), so that it can credit workers' retirement accounts with both the worker's and the employer's contribution. When the SSA tries to credit an unauthorized worker's account, the number usually shows up as either nonexistent or belonging to someone with another name.

In 2002, according to Salins, the SSA took the unprecedented step of sending 950,000 letters to employers identifying such "mismatches." Employers and immigrant advocacy groups raised so many objections that the SSA cut back the program. As a result, "no-match" accounts now hold more than $586 billion. Some of these unmatched numbers can be traced to clerical errors, and some arise because people forget to tell the SSA that they have changed their name after a marriage or divorce. But the SSA believes that most unmatched numbers come from illegal immigrants using fake numbers to get work.

Read the whole thing. Jencks provides a balanced picture on the tradeoffs to businesses versus the country under a regime of tougher workplace regulation. But overall, the article is a penetrating analysis of the long-shot odds of achieving real reform in the foreseeable future:

The federal government's policy of opposing illegal immigration while refusing to enforce laws against hiring illegal immigrants has had huge costs. It has exacerbated popular distrust of the federal government (as indeed it should have). It has also increased hostility to foreigners, especially Mexicans, who are all suspected of having entered the country illegally. To many Americans Washington's failure to control illegal immigration, like its failure to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is just another example of how out of touch, duplicitous, and incompetent federal officials really are. In the short run such views are good for Republicans who want to discredit government and cut federal spending. In the long run, however, extreme distrust of government also precludes sensible policies that even conservatives should favor.

Regulars here will recall that I backed the Bush administration on reform, even with my concerns that the legislation would reward lawbreaking (see here and here). Yet, Jencks' article is having me rethink my position a bit. Legalization makes little sense when one examines immigration from the lense of interest group politics. As much as I support business, it's unhelpful to keep hammering away at tougher "border enforcement" without stringent controls against the employment of illegal aliens on the job.

No comments: