“There is a smart way to protect our borders, and there is a dumb way to protect our borders,” Hillary Clinton explained at a February debate in Austin. Obama agreed. The smart way, he added, involves “deploying effective technology.” The “dumb” way, which both Obama and Clinton voted for, involves building a hideous steel barrier on land taken from inconveniently situated Texans.
Thus has advanced our immigration debate since the great failure of comprehensive reform in 2007. Walls are for neanderthals. Civilized people do not try to keep poor, entrepreneurial, much-needed workers out of the country with bricks and mortar; rather, they achieve this through the use of technology. On this, all three prospective presidential candidates agree. Each supports an expanded employment verification program, which would involve a hugely expensive surveillance apparatus and bureaucracy in order to monitor the employment choices of every American and foreign national. What an appalled ACLU calls “a permission slip to work” has come to represent the middle ground, though it’s likely to be far more devastating than any fence.
A bill known as the SAVE Act (Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act of 2007) represents an extreme version of this fantasy, a barrier built of paper and databases rather than mere concrete. The bill’s co-sponsors, Democrat Heath Shuler and Republican Tom Tancredo, are currently attempting to force a vote on the issue by collecting signatures for a discharge petition. If they succeed, they’ll force reluctant legislators into the awkward position of voting on an unworkable bill that seems, at first glance, a reasonable attempt to enforce the law.
Fewer than one percent of American employers currently use the E-verify system, which checks the immigration status of American and foreign workers against imperfect federal databases. By all accounts, the Social Security Administration is struggling under this burden; SAVE would increase the number of users by around 13000 percent (pdf). Every employer would be forced to send information about every potential hire, citizen or otherwise, to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, which would send the information on to the Social Security Administration, which would send the information back to USCIS. In cases where either agency finds a discrepancy, USCIS will issue a “temporary non-confirmation” that the worker can in theory contest within eight days. Given the 4.1 percent error rate of the SSA database, millions of legal workers may have to fight for the right to accept a job. According to the agency, 17.8 million of its records contain discrepancies, and most of those pertain to citizens.
Employers are not supposed to act when presented with a “temporary non-confirmation”; they’re supposed to relay information to employees, allow employees to contest the finding, and wait for another response from DHS. But the costs of E-verify are significant even when it functions properly, and waiting around while potential hires wrestle with data snags is even costlier. From the perspective of an employer with a bunch of interchangeable potential hires, it's most efficient to simply run everyone through the system and fail to hire people with problematic records. Pre-employment screening is illegal, but a study commissioned by the DHS last year found that nearly half of participating employers were ignoring at least some mandated worker protections.
While undocumented workers probably contribute more in federal taxes than they consume in federal services, no one doubts that they pose some fiscal burden to border communities where they arrive. Still, you’d have to take an improbably extreme view of these costs to deem the SAVE Act fiscally rational. According to the Congressional Budget Office (pdf), the act would decrease federal revenues by $17.3 billion between 2009 and 2018 as formerly tax-paying workers go underground. The costs of expanding E-verify and a bunch of other goodies stuffed into SAVE (thousands more border agents, a program to recruit former members of the armed forces to join the border patrol, more SUVs and unmanned aerial vehicles, hundreds of full time immigration investigators, expanded immigration detention centers) come to $23.4 billion in discretionary spending during the same period. And that doesn’t touch the cost to individual employers, who are being slapped with a huge regulatory burden in the midst of impending recession.
No presidential candidate has come out in favor of Schuler’s bill, most likely because the bill includes no avenue for undocumented workers who wish to become legal. Herein lies the ambitious stupidity of SAVE: If the bill works as intended, it will instantly turn the population of 12 million undocumented workers with no way of becoming legal into 12 million unemployed undocumented workers with no way of becoming legal. For a political constituency constantly worried about “anarchy,” this does not appear to be an ideal situation.
The SAVE Act may or may not come to a vote this session, but employment verification will almost certainly be a part of future compromise legislation on immigration reform. That's worrying. Walls offend us aesthetically and symbolically; they’re clumsy and primitive and cruel. But they’re also easy to tear down; far easier than a slowly metastasizing system of total employment surveillance, of growing databases and expanding bureaucracies.
In the end, E-verify will not “turn off the tap,” “dry up the pool of jobs,” or “turn off the magnet.” It will simply encourage workers underground, where they will be more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to pay taxes. But SAVE’s supporters may be doing more than they know to slow the flow of willing workers into the United States. Rises and falls in the flow of undocumented immigrants do not track enforcement efforts; they track the state of the U.S. economy. If legislators manage to quicken the onset of recession by reducing the flexibility of American employers, draining billions in tax revenue, and preventing Americans from going to work, they'll get exactly what they've been wishing for.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor of reason.