Immigration rules are tough, but not smart

    Recently the federal government took a half-step on immigration while taking a giant step toward harming Wisconsin’s and our nation’s economy. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced new Social Security No-Match regulations which, for the first time, force employers to fire workers who can’t resolve employment verification issues within 90 days. With this announcement, the Bush Administration appears to have abandoned further attempts to reform the nation’s broken immigration system in favor of an enforcement-only approach.
    Enforcement is essential to the integrity of our nation’s immigration system, but enforcement must be smart, not just tough. Is it smart to gamble with the health of our economy by worsening worker shortages in Wisconsin and the rest of the country in key industries such as meat packing, construction and health care? Is it smart, when immigrants make up 70% of the agricultural workforce, to tie the hands of our farmers just as harvest is approaching? Is it smart, when the vast majority of Americans support comprehensive immigration reform, to take half-measures that could raise prices and lower the standard of living for all Americans?
    These are the likely effects of the new regulations. Wisconsin employers, including small businesses and farmers, could face criminal prosecution, heavy fines and discrimination claims for failing to fire these workers or resolving these issues to the government’s satisfaction.
    To make matters worse, the government offers no carrot to go with the stick. Businesses will face new regulations and increased liability without the tools needed to quickly and accurately verify worker eligibility. An internal audit of the Social Security Verification Pilot Program indicated a 4% error rate, which translates to 18 million people being incorrectly identified as being ineligible to work. Not surprisingly, only a small percentage of businesses now use the program.  A measure to properly fund and improve the system died with immigration reform this summer, and in its recent announcement, DHS offered no credible explanation as to how it will achieve such a vast expansion of the flawed program.
    Assuming that DHS can wave a magic wand and make the verification system work, it is unlikely to achieve its stated purpose of ensuring that those that work in this country have the legal authority to do so. Under the present system, most undocumented immigrants work “on the books.” They pay federal and state payroll taxes. The new system will simply encourage a cash economy where workers are much more susceptible to labor abuses. Businesses that have played by the rules under the old system will be punished by losing workers, while businesses that break the law will continue to pay cash and will find a much larger pool of desperate workers to prey upon.          
    This new edict follows the failure by Congress and the president to provide real immigration reform that would allow hardworking, law-abiding immigrants to fill the jobs that many Americans are simply not willing to do. Unfortunately, each attempt at reform has devolved into finger pointing and arguments about what constitutes “amnesty.” In reality, a broken law usually makes everyone a lawbreaker, and our immigration system is no exception. Rather than looking for a scapegoat, our politicians need to focus on a practical solution. Comprehensive immigration reform would secure our borders, create a temporary worker program, and form a path to legalization for most of the 10 to 11 million undocumented community members in our country.  
    Employers should be able to find willing and eligible workers. Workers should enjoy full protection under the law. And every American should feel that this nation’s borders are secure and that our critical industries have enough workers to function properly. But our immigration system is in crisis, and in a crisis, half measures such as those announced by DHS will cause far greater harm than good to all citizens. The only real solution to this crisis is a complete solution – comprehensive immigration reform.
    Erich Straub is the chairperson the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), Wisconsin Chapter. AILA is the national association of more than 10,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. AILA members represent thousands of U.S. businesses and workers in dealing with immigration issues. For more information, visit


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