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Over the line

The anti-immigration furor is pushing us toward irrational policies.

June 11, 2008

He may be a reluctant immigration restrictionist, but Michael Chertoff is remarkably diligent. The secretary of Homeland Security is one of the Bush administration's most enthusiastic lobbyists for immigration reform, willing to highlight the "negative economic consequences" of tougher enforcement. Yet on items from the border wall to workplace raids to heavier burdens on employers, Chertoff delivers for the enforcement-only crowd.

On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will require federal contractors to ensure the immigration status of employees through its E-Verify system. It's a reasonable step -- and that may be the problem. As immigration hawks have gone from triumph to triumph, the rest of us have had to adjust our views of what reasonable behavior is.

It's legitimate to demand that contractors seeking Uncle Sam's money jump through a few more hoops. And although Chertoff's claim that E-Verify is "99.5%" accurate seems overstated (a new Government Accountability Office report indicates that the system produces uncertain results 8% of the time, and a 2006 report cited a 4% error rate in Social Security records, which E-Verify relies on), the collateral damage may be less troubling than the damage to the country's sense of itself.

As we hustle to show resolve in the immigration "crisis," we're getting used to the idea that all private endeavor is subject to Washington's prior approval. What kind of country do we want? A few years ago, a border wall would have seemed a relic from medieval China or Central Europe in the totalitarian era. Now it is official U.S. policy. Some codgers may remember when you didn't have to give your "Social" for every purpose under heaven (and for now, E-Verify remains voluntary for strictly private business), but that option is rapidly dying as well.

Should the government cede so much ground to an anti-immigration mob that shows no signs of being appeasable? Border crossings are down, conditions for illegal immigrants have worsened and workplaces all over the country have been shut down. The restrictionists are on a winning streak, yet CNN host Lou Dobbs continues to rant about the "utter abrogation of responsibility at the federal level," and less dandified commentators fear a presidential race between "McAmnesty and Obamnesty." This is not rational thinking. By according it too much respect, we hasten the day when freedom of contract becomes a memory and "Don't fence me in" becomes just a forgotten song title.

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