Immigration reform is everyone's business
Published April 26, 2006

The illegal immigration issue is becoming more heated with each passing day. Congress is battling back and forth over the issue, the airwaves and newspapers are full of stories and in-depth articles, and protest marches are filling the streets of nearly every U.S. city. On both sides, the issue often seems intractable. Can we find a middle ground?

We are all responsible for illegal immigration. It is disingenuous for us to argue on the one hand that illegal immigrants should be barred and blocked from this country, while simultaneously benefiting from the labor that they provide. And it’s hard to argue that any of us don’t reap a benefit from the work of illegal immigrants.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates about a quarter of cooks, house keeping and maintenance staff, construction workers, and agricultural workers are illegal immigrants. So, if you’ve been to a restaurant lately, or stayed in a hotel, or bought inexpensive produce from Florida or California, chances are you’ve reaped the fruits of illegal labor.

Therein lies the crux of this problem: money. Illegal workers, like all workers, are trying to earn a living, and right now they have plenty of opportunity to do so in this country. Consensus estimates put the number of illegal workers in the country at about 11 million, 7 percent of the workforce, and more than the current number of unemployed legal workers. Would all those workers get jobs if we were somehow able to kick out all the illegal immigrants?

Frankly, no. And not because the immigrants do jobs that Americans don’t want. Rather, it’s because illegal immigrants do jobs at wages that Americans wouldn’t accept, and under conditions that legal workers would definitely refuse. Were employers and businesses forced to stop using illegal labor, they would be forced to raise wages and improve working conditions. Rather than spend that money, they would likely eliminate jobs, continue outsourcing, or import produce and other goods from abroad.

That’s why it sometimes seems like there’s no win to this situation. The low-cost goods that drive a large segment of our economy are supported by low-cost, illegal immigration. Conversely, it seems unfair to simply allow so many immigrants who have circumvented the law to work freely in this country—particularly if they continue to do so under sub-standard conditions.

Government solutions should focus on the money side of the equation, specifically on those employers who hire illegal workers. The INS has tried to implement better ways to track whether workers are documented, by limiting the number of types of documents that can be used as proof of right to work and by establishing an electronic system for employers to quickly and easily verify the identity of new hires. Their efforts, however, have been blocked or only partially successful.

If the managers and CEOs of companies proved in a court of law to be employing illegal immigrants were held directly responsible—with jail time and hefty fines—this problem would go away. If companies were afraid of the legal implications of employing illegal workers, they simply wouldn’t do so. And if there were no jobs for illegal immigrants in this country, why would any of them want to come here?

Unlike law enforcement officers, who have to hunt down illegal immigrants, employers have them come right to their door. There’s no need to refer anyone to the authorities; just politely decline employment to anyone who can’t prove they are in the country legally. If our hypothetical illegal immigrant moves on to the next employer down the road, he’ll get the same answer. Sorry, can’t help you. The same thing happens at the next door and at the next door. Finally, the immigrant is forced to admit that he can’t find a job in the U.S. without valid documentation, and he likely returns to where he came from.

This kind of system would rely on two factors: first, honest employers. Again, those who continued to break the law would be harshly punished. Second, the ability to quickly, easily, and accurately establish worker’s rights. Not only would such a system have to be reliable, it would have to include the ability to appeal decisions with equal speed, in the case of a legitimate worker wrongly denied employment.

While we want to curtail illegal immigration, the influx of new citizens to this country is what has made America a great nation. We do not want to adopt a European model of guest workers, burdened with second-class-citizen status. Legal immigration adds to the strength of this country, both economically and culturally. Therefore, while shutting down the influx of illegal workers, we should simultaneously open up our borders to broader legal immigration.

A migrant worker program could allow seasonal employment for immigrants who do not want to relocate permanently to the United States, while an expansion of normal work visas would put others on a track to eventual citizenship. If a person comes here legally, works hard, contributes to our society and spends the time and effort necessary under current law, they should be welcomed as fellow citizens by all of us.