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Memo to Meese: Work Verification is the Real Fence

By Robert Robb

If a congressional discussion on immigration reform is to be revived and become productive, those who want strong immigration controls in the future need to sharpen their priorities and focus.

A good example of misplaced priorities and sloppy thinking was on display in a June 7 Wall Street Journal column by Ed Meese, former Attorney General under Ronald Reagan and currently a Heritage Foundation fellow.

Meese, in part, belittled the proposed border security provisions in the Senate compromise bill, which ran aground last week.

As Meese pointed out, the requirements for border agents, fencing and detention beds in the bill either duplicate or fall short of the requirements of other legislation already enacted.

An argument could be made that, by making permanent legal residency and citizenship for the current illegal population contingent upon fulfilling these obligations, the Senate compromise makes congressional follow-through regarding funding more likely.

However, in general, Meese has a point. Congress is trying to sell the same bill of goods on border security again.

Regretfully, and wrongheadedly, Meese then goes on to excoriate the work eligibility verification requirements in the Senate compromise, denouncing them as a "costly compliance and record-keeping requirement on business owners." Moreover, according to Meese, because it would be "(a)vailable to numerous federal, state and local agencies, the database would be subject to the same kind of abuse, improper handling, or even identity theft, we've seen repeatedly when federal agencies get their hands on similar, 'confidential' data."

But federal, state and local agencies already have access to the data. Over 150,000 federal, state and local agencies already use the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program to verify Social Security and visa names and numbers to determine eligibility for benefit programs and other purposes.

I recently took my son to the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division to apply for his learner's permit. He had to provide his Social Security number, which MVD used to verify that he is a legal resident, a requirement to obtain a driver's license under Arizona law.

Employers can currently query the same database to verify the work eligibility of new hires through the Basic Pilot Program. However, participation is voluntary and only a few thousand employers are using it.

The Senate compromise would expand the capacity of the system and make its use mandatory for employers -- within 18 months for new hires and within 3 years for existing employees.

As a practical matter, this is the only way to sharply weaken the job magnet that is fueling illegal immigration.

Increased border security won't do the job. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 45 percent of current illegal immigrants actually entered the country legally. They just overstayed their visas.

There is, of course, already a ban on hiring those ineligible to work in this country. However, it is not currently enforced and, as a practical matter, is largely unenforceable.

At present, employers have to fill out a form indicating that new hires have presented certain documents. The problem is that some of the acceptable documents, such as driver's licenses and Social Security cards, are easily forged.

With electronic verification, forged documents wouldn't pass muster. There would have to be a match with a real and legal name and number.

Compliance could be expensive, if scanners capable of reading biometric identifiers or other information were required. The current system, however, is queried electronically via the Internet. Using it is not costly, burdensome or difficult.

A universal mandate to electronically verify work eligibility would largely eliminate access to the formal American economy for those not legally entitled to work here. There would still be opportunities in the black market or informal economy. Illegal housekeepers and lawn men might still be possible, for instance. But a third of new construction jobs would not be going to illegal immigrants.

This is not to argue that border security is ineffective or unimportant. Where tried, it has had an effect. In fact, Arizona's problem has been intensified because of the success of border enforcement activities in California and Texas.

However, border enforcement without more effectively cutting off access to the formal economy won't get the job done. In reality, work eligibility verification is the more reliable fence.

Robert Robb is a columnist for the Arizona Republic and a RealClearPolitics contributor. Reach him at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com. Read more of his work at robertrobb.com.

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