San Diego Union Tribune

March 14, 2005

Immigration plan targets employers
Lawmakers hope to curb hiring of illegal workers

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – For Republicans such as Rep. Jeff Flake, platoons of federal regulators snooping around businesses are normally as welcome as the coyotes that prowled the Arizona ranch where he grew up.

But Flake is emerging as one of the leading advocates of an immigration overhaul that promises to get tough with employers who continue to hire illegal immigrants.

"We'd slap them hard," said the Arizona congressman. "You get a good program and you enforce the heck out of it."

However, Congress has been unable to find a "good program" to do that in the three decades that it has wrestled with the problem.

The current employer sanctions, which Congress approved in 1986, unraveled almost immediately because illegal immigrants gained easy access to phony documents, virtually inoculating employers from prosecution.

After 10 years under that enforcement system, some members of Congress in 1996 sought to make driver licenses, birth certificates and other identification documents more difficult to counterfeit.

But opponents at both ends of the political spectrum flogged the proposals as the first steps toward Big Brother. They marched around Capitol Hill with tattoos of bar codes on their arms to underscore what they saw as a threat to civil liberties.

Now some on Capitol Hill are promising a robust enforcement program to curtail illegal immigration and at least temporarily legalize many of the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

The effort has been energized by President Bush's call to match "willing workers with willing employers" in a guest-worker program.

But critics have blasted the proposal as a favor for employers in search of cheap labor and for immigrant advocacy groups eager to build their constituencies. Some contend that such a program would compromise national security.

"Is it possible that any president would put the economic interests of corporations addicted to cheap labor ahead of the safety of American men, women and children?" Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., said last month.

In an effort to forge a bipartisan coalition and win the White House's blessing, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are crafting a comprehensive bill to revamp immigration laws.

Sen. John Cornyn, chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, will begin holding a series of hearings today on immigration enforcement.

"Unless we can ensure enforcement of the law, it will be futile to discuss the reform of law," the Texas Republican said.

Just how far lawmakers are willing to go to make employer sanctions enforceable is unclear. Will they standardize driver licenses or birth certificates? Will they accept a national worker registry? Or a tamper-resistant Social Security card?

In the past, the answer to all of those questions has been a resounding "no."

"Those who question whether or not we can follow through and enforce the (proposed) law with severe employer sanctions have a right to be skeptical after what happened after the last round of major changes to immigration law in 1986," Flake said.

A successful enforcement program would require a tamper-resistant identity document that employers could use to quickly and reliably distinguish legal from illegal workers, a congressionally mandated commission concluded in 1994.

The commission, which was led by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, D-Texas, called for the creation of a mandatory national computerized registry of legal workers. Instead, lawmakers enacted a voluntary worker-verification pilot program that quickly fizzled.

Lawmakers rejected the commission's recommendations after opposition from immigration advocacy groups and pro-business conservatives.

Today, the most ambitious proposal would require Social Security cards with a photograph and an electronic strip with encrypted identifying information.

Proposed by Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and David Dreier, R-San Dimas, it calls for a $50,000 fine per violation and up to five years in prison.

"If you're an employer, the question you'll have to ask yourself is: 'Do I feel lucky?' " said Reyes, a career Border Patrol agent before he entered Congress. "I guarantee you that if employers start hearing they're being prosecuted for hiring people without the Social Security card, they'll know it's either follow the law or go out of business."

Because the groups that scuttled the enforcement recommendations nearly a decade ago are, if anything, stronger today, the bill is considered a long shot.

Michael Teitelbaum, who was a member of Jordan's commission, said the groups will oppose any step that might seriously interfere with an employer's ability to hire illegal workers.

"It lines up the Wall Street Journal editorial page and right-wing libertarians like the Cato Institute with left-wing liberals like the ACLU," said Teitelbaum, a demographer at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. "And it brings in ethnic lobby groups, church groups, employer organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers and the national Chamber of Commerce."

One of the skeptics is Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who inherited many of Jordan's constituents in a Houston district that has seen an influx of illegal immigration.

"I'm willing to study it," she said of the Social Security card proposal. "I want to make sure it can't be used as a national identification card."

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