Republicans Have It Backward on Immigration

Republicans say border security and enforcement must precede legalization of the undocumented. Good luck with that.

A wall won't work.

Photographer: David Maung/Bloomberg

Because the GOP base is vehemently opposed to undocumented immigrants, Republican presidential candidates tend to stress their commitment to ramped-up security and enforcement measures as a precursor to any resolution for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. House Republicans have even put that principle in a legislative headline with their "Secure our Borders First Act."

But as Byron York points out at the Washington Examiner, this presents a chicken-and-egg problem.

That means that new security measures — the main ones are enhanced border security, the E-Verify system to identify employees working illegally, and the visa entry-exit system to stop visa overstays — those systems have to be not only passed into law, not only funded, but actually be implemented and up and running before lawmakers consider the status of the 11 or 12 million.

What happens, York wondered, when a (presumably mandatory and comprehensive) E-Verify system at American workplaces identifies several million undocumented immigrants who are gainfully -- and illegally -- employed? Republicans aren't about to proceed with a mass deportation (although House Republicans recently passed legislation implying that they would). Once E-Verify starts exposing illegal workers, will employers be required to fire them? That's a good way to destroy small businesses and produce millions of destitute people with absolutely no corresponding social benefit.

That scenario might appeal to the anti-immigrant hard core, but it's unlikely to find purchase beyond. In fact, follow the line of inquiry begun by York and you soon reach a very different conclusion: The "enforcement first, legalization next" formula has it exactly backward. We need to legalize first, then secure.

While the border can never be fully secure, the workplace has the potential to get pretty close. Once E-Verify's various troubles -- resistance from employers, database errors and the like -- are resolved, it should become much easier to identify who is a legal worker and who isn't. (The key distinction now, at least for some small businesses that aren't especially eager to know too much about their employees, is between those with a plausible Social Security number and those without.)

E-Verify, which is voluntary now, has been evolving. "I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of employers and workers could be brought in to the system within a few years," Marshall Fitz, an immigration analyst at the Center for American Progress, told me via e-mail. "The biggest concern in the transition, of course, will be the inevitable false negatives where people get declined because of system or human error. If those concerns aren’t effectively addressed, there will be widespread resistance that makes the system harder to manage."

Enforcement in the workplace would severely undermine the economic incentive for illegal immigration. It would increase the risk of border crossing by increasing the likelihood that even a successful crossing would yield less in income than the cost of migrating.

But by the time a comprehensive E-Verify system can efficiently identify illegal workers, there must be a legal mechanism in place for undocumented immigrants, many of whom have been working for years, to continue doing so. "Secure the border" is a useful slogan in a GOP primary. In a nation with more than 7,000 miles of land border, 95,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of airports welcoming tens of millions of visitors annually, it's not an actual policy.

The border, along with the airports through which many undocumented immigrants pass, can be made more secure; that will be the inevitable (and costly) political price to gain the release of the 11 million. But additional border security is unlikely to have a huge effect on illegal immigration flows. When I recently asked a border patrol agent in Texas whether doubling (again) the size of the patrol would end illegal border crossings, he needed no time to ponder before shaking his head, no.

Workplace enforcement is a more promising barrier to illegal entry. But if Republicans pursue it the tough-sounding way -- security first, legalization second -- they are inviting disaster.

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