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Illegal Immigration in Tough Times

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, May 14, 2009

While the recession has rattled every rung of economic ladder, it has ravaged the bottom bars. Unemployment stands at just over 4 percent for college graduates but at nearly 15 percent for those lacking high-school diplomas. In poor black neighborhoods, it's around 30 percent and approaching Great Depression levels.

So let's talk about illegal immigration in a serious way. Even in good times, the large presence of undocumented workers hurts our low-skilled natives and legal immigrants. Given today's broken economy, it would seem unconscionable not to address the situation.

The Obama administration has launched some early immigration reforms, and they make sense. Notably, it has moved the brunt of enforcement away from the unauthorized workers and onto those who hire them.

Of all the players in this drama, the illegal immigrants are the least blameworthy. They are hard workers who took advantage of what any reasonable person would have seen as an open labor market.

That does not justify the continued hiring of them at the expense of our most vulnerable populations. Rest assured that if college grads were to flood illegally into this country and depress the salaries of Americans who make and write about policy, the laws would have been enforced long ago.

President Obama's new approach is more effective as well as more humane. It orders Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to impose fines and press criminal charges against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. They may arrest workers only when the local U.S. attorney agrees to prosecute the bosses.

For such a policy to work long-term, there must be an easy way for companies to check the legal status of a new hire. And there is a way.

E-Verify lets employers confirm a worker's information with the Social Security Administration database over the Internet.

Westat, an independent researcher, found that E-Verify cleared

96 percent of employees within 5 seconds. Less than one half of 1 percent was not verified because of errors in the Social Security database.

(Employers can't fire them while the mismatch is being contested.) The rest were illegal workers.

Advocates of open borders -- both defenders of illegal immigration and cheap-labor businesses -- have run a campaign to demonize E-Verify precisely because it does the job. It enables enforcement of the law without scenes of ICE agents hauling away poor foreigners in handcuffs.

We still await a comprehensive immigration plan, which would deal with the millions of illegals already established in this country. A "path to citizenship" for this group would be reasonable, but only if it's the last amnesty. That is, the E-Verify system would have to be in place so employers can't ignore the ban on hiring undocumented workers in the future.

The advocates hold that rather than stop the flow of undocumented workers, the United States should just keep legalizing everyone. Their argument is as follows: Wages for low-skilled jobs are dismal because employers can exploit illegal workers. Make them legal, and companies would have to improve pay and working conditions for all.

There's some truth in that, but you can't get around basic labor economics. From heart surgeon to street sweeper, every worker is subject to the law of supply and demand. The more people there are after the same number of jobs, the less anyone has to pay them.

The United States accepts 2 million legal immigrants a year, more than the rest of the world combined. No American has to apologize for drawing the line at illegal immigration.

Our working poor deserve the same protections against unfair competition that our doctors get. And in this economy, their need has grown desperate.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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