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Immigration Reform Is Quietly Here

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One of America's toughest problems is being solved right before our unseeing eyes. As Mark Sanford strayed, Michael Jackson departed and Sarah Palin quit, the Obama administration was quietly putting law, order and the national interest back into our immigration system.

New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer says he will offer a comprehensive immigration bill by Labor Day. But don't look there. Look at the administration's ongoing program to confront employers of illegal immigrants in a low-key way.

So far this year, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency has audited the hiring records of over 650 companies suspected of using illegal labor and moved against the offenders. Example: ICE told American Apparel in Los Angeles that 1,800 of its 5,600 factory workers appeared to be unauthorized. The company was fined $150,000 and told to fire employees who, on further inspection, were not supposed to be there.

Last week, the administration announced that any company wanting a sizable federal contract must use the E-Verify system to ensure that its workers are legal. E-Verify is an electronic database that contains Social Security and other records. Many businesses already use the system. The federal contract requirement moves us a step toward making an E-Verify check mandatory for all new hires.

The Bush administration tended toward cinematic raids on factory floors and big military shows at the border. Illegal immigrants were hauled off in handcuffs and slapped with criminal charges. Children were separated from parents.

George W. Bush's heart was surely not in this. He seemed happy to supply his business constituents with cheap labor, and the cost of services for illegal immigrants ended up in state and local budgets, not his. Some critics of this policy assumed that the raids were made to look painful in the hopes that Americans would lose interest in enforcing the law.

Whatever. Enforcement is now being done through lawyerly conversations with executives. Not much to film here. Businesses found to be guilty of hiring illegal workers are fined and warned. If they keep doing it, the punishments grow harsher.

Recall the fireworks over the failed "grand bargain" on immigration two years ago? It envisioned pairing a path to citizenship for America's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants with a new regime of employer sanctions.

Only the public didn't buy into it. It saw another big amnesty sold alongside another insincere promise to end the future hiring of illegal workers. Those open to legalizing many of the undocumented -- and polls show most Americans do -- but who wanted illegal immigration stopped -- ditto, the polls -- called for an "enforcement first" policy. Let the government prove it was serious about the law, and then we'll talk about the path to citizenship.

That's exactly the Obama approach. Anyone who doubts its effectiveness should note the discomfort among open-borders interests. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sued to stop the expansion of E-Verify. And the National Immigration Forum, an advocate for illegal immigrants, warns that E-Verify databases are infected with problems. Actually, E-Verify is accurate and easy to use.

And so by the time Schumer unveils his program, the larger public will already have reason to trust that the next amnesty would be the last. Schumer has gone further in that regard. He has proposed a tighter verification system using unique biometric markers, such as fingerprints or the iris of eyes. And he has come out and said that America lacks engineers, not low-skilled laborers.

Imagine that, an immigration overhaul that promises real enforcement, protects our most vulnerable workers and recognizes America's true labor needs. And we're getting there without the dramatics. Boy, are these guys smart.

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