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Immigration Control: Doing It Right : Needed--a counterfeit-proof ID card for all U.S. workers

August 29, 1993

The latest twist in California's immigration debate is a call for state sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants. Key Democrats are proposing that employers forfeit their farms, factories or other assets if they are found to repeatedly hire illegal immigrants. The plan is half-baked, but the underlying idea--to hold employers accountable--has merit.

The call--sounded last week by Assembly Democrats including Speaker Willie Brown and Richard Polanco of Los Angeles, chairman of the Latino Caucus--is an effort to match Gov. Pete Wilson's controversial recent proposals. Wilson would deny education and health care benefits to illegal immigrants and bar their children from U.S. citizenship. The Democratic response suffers from the same problem as Wilson's plan: Immigration is regulated by the federal government, thus there is little the state can do about it. Still, in focusing on jobs as the magnet that draws immigrants here, the Democrats are hitting a more realistic target than Wilson.

It's true that the suggestion that employers of illegal immigrants forfeit their assets is unrealistically Draconian. But the idea suggests something more workable: Stepped-up enforcement of existing laws prohibiting hiring of illegal immigrants and preventing exploitation in the workplace.

Here the Legislature can do something besides flap its lips. It can increase the budget of those state agencies, like the Industrial Welfare Commission, that inspect workplaces for violations of wage-and-hour laws and worker safety rules. (Not surprisingly, the unscrupulous employers who hire illegal immigrants tend to be the same ones who run their businesses like sweatshops.) U.S. sanctions against employers already exist under the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).

It is often forgotten of late that the 1986 act not only granted amnesty to illegal immigrants but also imposed penalties against employers who knowingly hired them. Alas, IRCA did not give employers a simple or reliable method to verify a job applicant's eligibility. Workers could provide any number of documents, from Social Security cards to driver's licenses, to verify legal residency in this country. That opened the door to all kinds of counterfeit documents that illegal workers, or dishonest employers determined to hire them, could use to get around the law. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service didn't help any when it failed to assign adequate manpower and resources to enforcing IRCA's employment provisions.

The easiest way to make IRCA work more efficiently and fairly would be for all U.S. workers to have a tamper- and counterfeit-proof worker identity card, not unlike the computer-readable bank or credit cards many people already have. Of course, the idea of making every worker carry such a document raises the hackles of many civil libertarians, who say it smacks of Big Brother government. OK, so try this: Upgrade all Social Security cards.

Every worker--regardless of citizenship, age, race or national origin--is already required by law to have a Social Security card. Sure, the cost of reissuing cards in a computer-readable form is not cheap ($2.5 billion nationwide by one estimate). But it is less expensive than creating a whole new ID system from scratch.

Congress and the Clinton Administration should enforce IRCA better before anyone in Washington, or Sacramento, tries to reinvent the immigration-reform wheel. Let's start with a tamper-proof card.

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