Here we go again. Every year for the last five, immigration hawks in Congress have sought to require all businesses to use an error-plagued federal system known as E-Verify to ensure that all new hires are U.S. citizens or legal immigrants.
This year's proposal, known as the Legal Workforce Act, deserves special attention because it's being disingenuously advertised as a jobs plan. Its author, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), says that expanding E-Verify nationally will exorcise illegal immigrants from the workforce and create new opportunities for unemployed Americans.
That's nice in theory, but there is little evidence to suggest that out-of-work Americans will rush in to pick onions, slaughter cattle, mow lawns or wash dishes if undocumented immigrants are driven away. Consider recent events in Georgia, where lawmakers enacted harsh laws targeting illegal immigrants and requiring employers to use E-Verify. As predicted, undocumented immigrants fled the fields. Few legal workers, however, stepped in to perform backbreaking work for little more than the minimum wage. Now farmers say they face labor shortages and rotting crops. Similar complaints have been heard in Alabama and other states that have adopted laws intended to drive out illegal workers.
What's more, there is real doubt as to whether E-Verify can accurately weed out undocumented immigrants. A 2010 report conducted for the government by the research group Westat found that E-Verify failed to detect illegal workers 54% of the time. The reason is simple. The system can't detect identity fraud. The program checks workers' names against databases kept by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, but if an undocumented immigrant presents valid documents that belong to another person, he or she may not be flagged as unauthorized. In addition, Westat estimates that just under 1% of all legal applicants would be tagged as unauthorized. Though the system allows applicants eight days to prove their legal status, more than half would not be able to do so in time.
In fact, Smith's bill wouldn't provide American businesses with a legal workforce. It would merely drive millions of undocumented workers further underground, where unscrupulous employers can more easily exploit them. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that that is exactly what happened in Arizona. And it wouldn't make life easier for employers. It could actually cost small-business owners nearly $2.7 billion to implement, according to a Bloomberg News report.
Requiring employers to hire legal workers is the right thing to do. But demanding that businesses rely on an untrustworthy program to do so is not.