Immigration reform will most likely be taken up by the 112th Congress and in a perverse way, the recent economic turndown has shown us a path towards resolution of the problem, or at least a start. Despite the rhetoric on the right about anchor babies and birthright citizenship, the main reason people come to this country illegally is for jobs. Although they do strain our schools, transit systems, health care and social welfare programs, these are not the main reasons people come here.
While Harry Reid, with the blessing of Obama, tries to backdoor an amnesty program for a potential 1.5 million illegal immigrants via the DREAM Act, Republicans need to seize the higher ground and provide a united front in shooting down this legislation if not on its merits, then because of the methodology. But, they must also put forth a realistic immigration reform plan for two reasons. First, doing so would demonstrate to the Latino community that it is the Republicans who have a real plan for reform and this could help help stem the tide of the Hispanic vote drifting to Democrats. Secondly, it would be better if Republican ideas and ideals form the basis of reform lest Democrats dictate the terms primarily based on blanket amnesty. The basic ideals of Hispanics are more intuitively in line with those of true Republican ideals- that everyone should be given the opportunity to achieve the American dream. To Democrats, that dream is achieved through government largess. To Republicans, it is achieved through the power of the individual.
The main thrust of any reform must take into account the economic reasons for illegal immigration into this country. Business organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, are correct that these people often perform the jobs that many Americans will not. It is true that most Americans do not aspire to work in the fields, wash dishes, cut lawns, and clean homes. Nor can they be “forced” to perform these jobs- except in rare cases- but the government can nudge people in that direction through policies.
The one large untapped labor pool is prison laborers. Most state prisons and local jails have work-release programs. Considering that 51% of the Nation’s 2.1 million incarcerated people are behind bars for non-violent offenses, that represents a potential pool of more than 1 million people. Assuming even half of them are used for these purposes, it would most likely meet most labor demands, although there would be obvious regional discrepancies. Naturally, some prisoners could not be released to small employers using a small number of employees for fear of flight. But they can most certainly be utilized in the agricultural sector with truly low flight risks assigned to other sectors- lawn care, cleaning, construction, food preparation, and the hospitality industry.
Along these lines, another major source of cheap labor is those low-skilled, high school drop outs. It would be imperative that local officials determine the labor needs and the pool of such potential cheap labor and that they be matched up. Prohibiting them from use of social welfare programs is one carrot/stick that can be used to “nudge” these people in that direction. Again, there may be regional discrepancies, but using this labor pool would cut into the use of illegal immigrants. Additionally, the chronically low-skill, low-education unemployed could be “nudged” into these fields to offset benefits.
Because the goal is to create or force a pool of cheap domestic labor to directly compete with illegal immigrants, minimum wage laws should be flexible in the case of prison labor. The current rate for prison labor is about eight cents PER DAY. At a rate of $4.50 an HOUR, lower than the wage paid most illegal immigrants yet clearly better than 8 cents a day, the choice to employers should be obvious. Additionally, there would be no payroll tax deductions for the employee or employer, nor would employers be required to provide health benefits. The wages could be held in interest-bearing escrow accounts for the prisoners to be given at time of release minus any fines or fees withheld, minus any victim compensation provisions, minus a monthly reasonable stipend. In the case of the domestic low-skill under-educated pool, there would be no payroll taxes (they wouldn’t be paying them anyway so its a sum zero proposal). Although minimum wage itself would not attract enough people to the pool of labor, weaning from social welfare programs or decreasing benefits would steer them in the correct direction. Finally, non-violent, low risk convicted persons should be given the choice of incarceration versus low-skill employment which would further expand the labor pool AND decrease the strain on the penal system.
Besides creating a domestic labor pool to directly compete with illegal immigrants, current laws need to be amended and strengthened regarding work site inspections. Through a heavy enforcement presence, the obvious deterrent effect would result. While the Federal government may have limited resources to go after big offenders- that is, those involved in interstate commerce- there is no reason to bar state and local officials from going against intrastate or local offending employers. Furthermore, the discovery of illegal workers during OSHA or local Health Department or other inspections should be part of the protocol. The more eyes, despite the source of those eyes, the better the enforcement.
And in the area of workforce enforcement, the current fine scheme needs to be updated and made more serious, even for first offenses. Tripling existing fines per worker would be a good start in the right direction. In addition, repeat offenders would be subject to seizure of their business by the government with auctioning off assets once adjudicated.
Third, despite the sometimes alleged negative attributions, by and large, the E-Verify system is a success. The Rand Corporation studied its effectiveness and the effect of false positives and determined that the rate was so low as to be negligible. Hence, E-Verify should be mandatory for all employers with more than 25 workers and provided on a regional basis for use by employers with less than 25 workers. For all businesses that have E-Verify, it would be an absolute defense and proof of innocence in the case of true negatives. Conversely, anyone using E-Verify who hired a rejected applicant anyway, because their hiring was willful, should have the fines tripled. And, of course, there should be an appeals process of a specified period for false positives. Incidentally, most of those cases were due to outdated or erroneous ITINs that were later corrected and the person hired anyway.
There are obvious other areas where there is need for reform. Increasing a border presence, whether through Border Patrol or ICE, the National Guard, local law enforcement, or even privately contracted companies if cost effective is a necessity. During the transitional via attrition period, border security should be beefed up. Obviously, encouraging photo identification laws as proof of voter eligibility, like those upheld in Indiana, should be the law of the land. Using the power of the Federal purse, discouragement of “sanctuary cities” or states is a must. State laws like revocation of business licenses, like those currently being litigated before the Supreme Court, should be encouraged also. In other words, anything that makes it difficult for illegal immigrants to establish themselves- by creating domestic competition for labor or enforcing existing employer laws or restricting access to social welfare services and benefits is a must. It is not necessarily a rejection of the immigrant, but a realization that the problem has reached a critical mass and that rules need to be followed. The blatant anti-immigrant rhetoric needs to cease and reasonable policies instituted.
In part 2, I will address the parts of necessary reform that conservatives may not necessarily agree with. These are inconvenient necessities that must be enacted and will require some compromise with Democrats and Latino groups. However, by securing our borders by eliminating the reasons for illegal entry in the first place, we can then begin the process those on the left feel is necessary first. Make no mistake that even if these proposals were to become law and policy and work exactly as planned, there would still be a need for dealing with those illegal aliens currently here, with guest worker provisions, with anchor babies, with birthright citizenship, with building barriers along the border, and with our overall immigration philosophy.