Want Smarter Immigration Enforcement? Start at the Workplace, Not the Border

June 28th, 2013 at 4:20 pm

The immigration bill that solidly cleared the Senate is a strong step forward in comprehensive reform.  I’ll let those with greater imaginations than I contemplate the path forward in the House.  Here, I’d like to amplify an important bit of commentary by David Kallick on the part of the Senate bill that spends 30 billion new dollars—we’re already spending about $18 billion a year—on border security over the next decade.

As I noted here, controlling immigration flows is integral to reform.  Fail to do so, and even if this measure becomes law, it will suffer the same fate as the ultimately feckless 1986 reform.  But when it comes to achieving the goal of flow control, the marginal benefit of a dollar at the border pales beside employer-targeted measures.

At this point, a large minority (Kallick says “as many as 45%”) of the undocumented immigrants already here entered legally and overstayed their visas.  As far as they’re concerned, border security shuts the barn door after the horse is out.

By making the E-verification system mandatory and harder to fool, the Senate bill moves the ball forward.  But as Kallick points out, “it doesn’t take an evil genius to figure out a way around these tightened processes: Employers could just hire workers off the books.”

The best way to lastingly stop this problem is think less about border agents and more about labor inspectors.

They are the ones who can ensure that employers are paying employees on the books, withholding payroll taxes, and paying into state unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation funds.

Unfortunately, as the number of border patrol agents around the country has soared in recent decades, the number of labor inspectors has shrunk — by 31 percent between 1980 and 2007, even though the labor force grew…There are now only around 1,000 labor inspectors to cover the entire country.

As the bill moves to the House, supporters of comprehensive reform are going to have to gauge at what point the legislation becomes unsupportable.  In the case of border security, I’m afraid that question becomes: how much money are we willing to waste to get conservatives on board?  Given the extent to which the border is already beefed up, a smarter bill would shift the enforcement locus from the border to the workplace, with more resources going to labor inspectors and verification systems.

Unfortunately, these days bills don’t get smarter as they move from the Senate to the House.


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5 comments in reply to "Want Smarter Immigration Enforcement? Start at the Workplace, Not the Border"

  1. Bill Gatliff says:

    What you are proposing is similar to what DOT tried a few years ago to get drivers to stop exceeding their mandated time limits behind the wheel: audit payroll records and ALSO driver logs. Since nobody drives for free, you get high-quality data of how many miles were ACTUALLY covered regardless of how thoroughly the driver lies on his DOT log.

    Of course, there were howls of protest when this procedure was implemented and so the effort was quickly withdrawn. Seems nobody wanted ACTUAL compliance, just the appearance of compliance with the mandates, because otherwise they’d have to hire a third more drivers and trucks, which would make everyone’s milk and jeans more expensive.

    I think something similar has been attempted with regards to immigration. An empty chicken processing plant, perhaps in Arkansas, comes to mind. Seems when INS showed up to audit their payrolls, so many of the workers were illegitimate they basically had to close the doors a while.

  2. Kevin Rica says:


    We are pretty much in agreement on this one. I’ve made similar points myself, most recently in my comments here:


    But I still think it’s strange when you say:

    “I’m afraid that question becomes: how much money are we willing to waste to get conservatives on board?”

    Think of the fence as “infrastructure.” It’s great stimulus: Lots of construction jobs. Maybe even union.

    However, I am a little surprised at the historic revisionism about “the ultimately feckless 1986 reform.” Simpson-Mazzoli wasn’t that poorly designed. The problem was bad faith on the part of those that got amnesty as their part in the deal. As soon as the amnesty was done, Teddy Kennedy led the charge to prevent enforcement. He made it mandatory that employers were required to accept documents at face value, giving them legal safe harbor to hire illegals. He acted cynically and in terribly bad faith; aided and abetted by the CoC.

    What guarantee do we have that Chuck Schumer and the CoC won’t do it again?

    The inspections are a good idea. But the penalties need to have real deterrent force. At a minimum, hiring employees off the books raises obvious tax issues. In every case, the employer should be required to pay for a PROCTOSCOPIC TAX AUDIT. That will deter violations without any burden on honest taxpayers.

  3. CIP says:

    I think you are missing an important point. There are powerful economic interests who want immigration kept illegal and common. They want to be able to hire illegals cheaply and keep them scared.

    • Kevin Rica says:


      If they are not here, they cannot work cheap and employers have no alternative to competing for higher priced legal labor.

      If they are here, they are labor supply and more supply depresses prices.

      Economics 101. The space alien that captured Chuck Schumer’s brain espouses economics from a parallel universe. It doesn’t work that way on planet Earth.