Republican lawmakers Rep. Lamar Smith and Sen. Chuck Grassley made good on promises to target undocumented immigrant workers when they filed twin bills in Congress this week that would create a federal mandate forcing virtually all employers to use the database E-Verify to establish their workers’ immigration status. Smith has pitched his Legal Workforce Act as an immigration enforcement bill with a twist; he imagines it also as a job creation bill that would protect U.S. jobs from undocumented workers in an aching economy.
Immigrant rights groups have rejected that claim, calling the bill a bald attack on immigrant communities that would instead hurt the economy and make mandatory a deeply flawed immigration enforcement tool.
“This legislation is another example of putting cheap political maneuvers ahead of the interests of American workers,” said Clarissa Martínez De Castro, the director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza. “It will do nothing to create jobs, it will place a burden on all job-seeking U.S. citizens and legal immigrants, and it will not fix our broken immigration system.”
Smith’s bill, HR 2164, calls for nearly every employer with one or more worker to use E-Verify to check the work eligibility of both prospective and new hires. Current law calls for employers to use the system after workers are hired. HR 2164 would also decrease the number of acceptable documents that workers can use to prove their immigration status and work eligibility and would make it a felony to use a false Social Security number. The bill would be phased in over the course of the next three years.
“There is no other legislation that can be enacted that will create more jobs—maybe millions more—for American workers,” Smith wrote in an op-ed published in The Hill on Tuesday. “The ‘E’ in E-Verify could just as well stand for ‘easy’ and ‘effective,’” he said when he introduced the bill. “It takes just a few minutes to use and easily confirms 99.5 percent of work-eligible employees.”
That assertion isn’t supported by government tests of the system. Critics of E-Verify cite U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ own commissioned report from 2009 that showed that 54 percent of undocumented immigrants fall through the cracks when employers check their workers in the system. Workers who are legal residents and citizens are also frequently wrongly identified as ineligible to work.
E-Verify is currently optional. It was introduced in 1996 by Congress and has been reauthorized in 2002, 2008 and 2010. Over the years, E-Verify has captured the interests of immigration restrictionists with cyclical regularity. It is again enjoying a vogue, which immigration advocates say is a result of anti-immigrant backlash in the depressed economy.
“Now that [immigration into the U.S.] is down because of the economy, people are saying, ‘Well, what can we say about American jobs,’” said Mary Giovagnoli, the director of the Immigration Policy Center. “We’ve seen this as a pattern for the last 112th Congress, with the hearings that have been conducted that have almost exclusively been about trying to pit immigrant and native-born workers against each other.”
“The underlying assumption that Smith seems to be working on is that if we do something that forces illegal immigrants out of the country then all of the jobs that those people do will be jobs that American workers can take, or that the jobs will even exist,” Giovagnoli said. “But it’s not a one to one substitution.”
Giovagnoli said that the types of jobs that undocumented people fill are, for many reasons—because of location or skill level or work conditions—not jobs that out-of-work U.S. citizens would be up to or able to fill. “The basic assumption that anything we do to stop illegal immigration is suddenly going to open up new jobs is just faulty.”
SEIU also decried the “error-ridden” E-Verify in a statement this week and called Smith’s bill a job killer. “[The bill] would kill hundreds of thousands of jobs, drive up business costs, cripple the agriculture, restaurant and other industries that rely on immigrant workers, and drain the federal treasury of $17 billion over 10 years when disqualified workers go off the tax rolls and into the cash economy,” the statement argued.
A new report out this month from the bipartisan business and political group Renew Our Economy says that, in fact, undocumented immigrants help stimulate their local economies and are helping drive the largest U.S. companies and the American economy.
Still, Smith and his Republican colleagues continue to insist that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs that U.S. workers ought to have first.
“While 26 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed, 7 million individuals work illegally in the United States,” Smith and his E-Verify mandate ally Rep. Elton Gallegly wrote in a separate op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times. “On top of all the challenges Americans face today, it is inexcusable that Americans and legal workers have to compete with illegal immigrants for scarce jobs.”
Immigrant rights groups say Smith’s concern for American workers is bogus.
“Smith, whose real agenda is to place as many immigrants as possible into the deportation pipeline, is disguising this proposal as a means of stimulating the economy,” said Tyler Moran, policy director of the National Immigration Law Center. Moran testified at a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday on HR 2164, warning about E-Verify’s structural flaws. “According to the most conservative estimates, Smith’s bill would push hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens and other lawfully authorized workers, many of them breadwinners for their families, out of their jobs and into unemployment lines.”
Meanwhile, actual job creation proposals languish in obscurity in Congress.
Some Democrats have indicated that they won’t support the bill. California Rep. Judy Chu this week said the bill would disproportionately harm small mom and pop businesses and U.S. citizen workers. Yet the Obama administration has said it supports a nationwide electronic verification system, and back in May, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid indicated that he’d be open to attaching an E-Verify bill to the DREAM Act.
HR 2164 is scheduled for a markup in the full House Committee on the Judiciary in the next few weeks.