Conservatives, like most of the country, are focused on reinforcing the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border as a means of staving off high levels of illegal immigration.
That’s one obvious solution. Current physical barriers remain penetrable and many illegal aliens still escape detection.
Yet cross-border flows are only half the problem. More than 50% of 10-20 million illegal aliens currently in the country did not enter illegally. They came on short-term visas, sometimes as tourists, and simply never left, as required.
They’ve become — in the parlance of immigration policy – visa “over-stayers.”
Reinforcing the border – even, creating a “wall” – won’t deter them; in fact, it may even cause their intrusions to increase.
Most over-stayers aren’t even from Mexico. About 20% are from Brazil and Venezuela. Another 40% are from South Korea, China, India, and Saudi Arabia. About 15% eventually do leave but the vast majority of them stay, in part, because there is simply no way to track and apprehend them. Moreover, the penalty for overstaying a legal visa is much less severe than the one for illegal entry. Under current US law, it’s not even considered a “crime.”
But there’s a deeper source of stimulus to illegal immigration. It’s the “job magnet.” The real reason people will travel so far from home and risk the possibility of death – or never return home as promised — is the possibility of obtaining a decent job that pays 8-10 times what they might earn in their native land.
It stands to reason that instituting a more airtight workplace screening system – to prevent illegal hiring — would do more to deter illegal immigration than even a new and massive border security system would. So would keeping better tabs on short-term visa holders to enforce their planned departure.
But it’s easier said than done – mostly for political reasons. Businesses don’t want to play the role of immigration cops and prefer to leave workplace enforcement to the proper public authorities. And privacy groups, many of them conservative-aligned, don’t want to get involved in creating massive databases to help apprehend illegal aliens that might also lead to large numbers of native-born American citizens being tracked and perhaps falsely arrested or wrongly denied employment due to inevitable glitches in the new databases.
The original “E-Verify” system did have major technical problems — with high numbers of both false positives and false negatives reported. The chances that legal immigrants and full-fledged US citizens might be screened out was unacceptably high, and a relatively small number of illegal aliens still slipped through the net. However, most of these technical problems have since been addressed.
The main problem is political will. Under President Bill Clinton, E-Verify was put in place at the federal government level to screen government contractors. And thanks to pressure from conservative groups, about 20 states nationwide have also adopted the system in one form or another.
But there is no political constituency at the federal level to push E-Verify further. On the contrary residual resistance continues to be felt in Congress, largely due to pressure from business lobbies that do not want to see their pool of illegal labor dry up due to more effective immigration enforcement.
Low-skill industries like foodservice, fruit and vegetable picking, poultry processing and slaughterhouses, among others, say it is difficult to attract native-born labor to fill these occupational niches where the labor is grueling and low-paid. Without foreign-born workers, they would likely face labor shortages, and pressure to raise wages to attract native-born workers, which could reduce their global competitiveness.
President Trump could make these businesses comply with E-Verify by issuing an executive order, which has already been drafted for him. However, Trump needs the business community’s full support to pass upcoming infrastructure rebuilding initiatives. Launching an immigration crackdown that puts businesses on the frontlines of immigration enforcement would likely create a political backlash.
In fact, opposition from business has already led the president to pull back on a proposed measure to deport thousands of visa over-stayers employed in high-skill professions.
This is the dirty-little-secret behind the current immigration debate that so eludes the media and the public. Border crackdowns make for good optics — and good headlines. They make it possible for Republicans and Democrats alike to claim that they are taking constructive action to reduce illegal inflows.
And they allow the US Border Patrol, the most important political and labor constituency inside the US immigration bureaucracy, to flourish.
But they don’t attack illegal immigration at its source with the most effective means available.
If he’s serious about immigration enforcement, Trump needs to expand E-Verify nationwide – and make use of the system mandatory. He should also stiffen penalties for visa over-stayers, devise new ways to keep better tabs on them and take speedier action to guarantee their removal.
Voters deserve to know the truth about the real drivers and stimulants of illegal immigration. And they need their leaders to take the kind of constructive action that will actually help solve the problem, rather than creating ongoing political fodder and controversy that continue to divide the country with no solution in sight.