|Originally Aired: June 1, 2006
Immigration Reforms Could Change Hiring Practices
|Proposed immigration reforms in Congress could change hiring practices. |
JEFFREY BROWN: Continuing his push for a comprehensive immigration
reform bill, President Bush went to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today and
touted a new system that would enable employers to determine the legality of
those they were hiring.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I think this is sensible.
I think, if we want to enforce our laws, people ought to be required to check
to see whether or not names and numbers match.
JEFFREY BROWN: The provision, included in both the Senate
and House bills, is called the Employment Verification System.
The nation's 6.5 million employers would be required to
check an electronic database to determine if future workers are here legally
and entitled to work. Those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants could face
fines as high as $20,000 per worker and jail time for repeat offenses.
During Senate debate on the plan, both sides of the aisle
stressed its significance.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: This is probably the single most
important thing that we can do, in terms of reducing the inflow of undocumented
workers: making sure that we can actually enforce, in a systematic way, rules
governing who gets hired.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: What we are trying to do is balance
the needs of workers and employers and the immigration enforcement.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's been a crime to employ illegal workers
since the passage of the 1986 immigration law, but studies have shown that
penalties have not been widely enforced.
The new program is intended to replace one known as Basic
Pilot, an optional verification system in place since 1997. To date, only a
small fraction of the nation's employers have participated.
Enforcing the law
JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at some of these issues now with:
Laura Reiff, chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which
represents business interests in the debate over immigration reform; and Kevin
Jernegan, a professor at George
who specializes in labor and immigration.
And welcome to both of you.
LAURA REIFF, Essential Worker Immigration Coalition: Thank
KEVIN JERNEGAN, Professor, George Washington
University: Thank you
very much, Jeff.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jernegan, starting with you, we hear both
sides saying that this is something of a linchpin in whatever happens. Why? Why
is it so important?
KEVIN JERNEGAN: Well, it's very difficult to enforce any
sort of sanctions against employers unless you can establish that they
knowingly hired undocumented labor.
Going back to 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control
Act, we'd identified that one of the major draws for undocumented immigrants
was, in fact, these abundant job offers that they had here that paid
substantially better than they could make on the other side of the border.
So we wanted to go after these -- we reduced the number of
jobs that were available to them and hopefully stemmed the tide of illegal
immigration. And it seemed to have worked temporarily, in that, after 1986, we
saw that the apprehension of deportable aliens dropped by 50 percent during the
first three years after that.
So there's strong evidence to suggest that the employer sanctions
against employers, in fact, helped. But pretty soon people figured out that
there were ways around the system and that you could introduce fraudulent
documents, for instance.
There was very little enforcement. The number of actual
investigations of employers and penalties assessed against them was very
minimal. And so, pretty soon, you found that the number of undocumented started
to go up again.
But, basically, in order for any of the employer sanctions
to be effective, you have to have a reliable way of knowing who is and who is
not lawfully present. And, right now, if you look at someone who's got a bogus
identity card, a stolen identity, how can you really establish that that
employer really knowingly hired someone who was lawfully present?
Controlling the flow
JEFFREY BROWN: What is your sense of why things have not
worked? We've said now several times the law is that you cannot hire illegal
workers. Why hasn't it worked?
LAURA REIFF: Well, in 1986 -- the true reason why it hasn't
worked is, in 1986, we only fixed half of the problem. We had undocumented
workers here who needed to have some kind of stability in their life, and we
have the act that changed their status to permanent residents.
What we didn't do was provide a mechanism for allowing
workers to come into this country when we couldn't find U.S. workers, and that's what you
hear the president saying now, willing workers for willing employers.
We didn't have a spigot, a valve to have those workers come
into this country. So what happened was we had an economic boom here and
employers had job openings, couldn't find U.S. workers, and we've got 500,000
undocumented workers coming into this country now illegally.
So we had a problem with that system. And when those workers
come into the country, they have the fraudulent documents, like Kevin said. And
so employers, when they're looking at the documents, which we're required to do
under the Employment Eligibility Verification System, can't look beyond those
If they look like on their face they're valid documents, we
have to accept them. We do accept them; we do our compliance, and they're here.
They're working. So we have a severely broken system which started in 1986.
JEFFREY BROWN: So is it fair to say now that there is a
consensus on having some kind of verification program, but there is problems
with the details?
KEVIN JERNEGAN: Yes, I think that's a safe assessment. There
certainly is a broad consensus that this has to happen.
If we're going to have any sort of enforcement, we need to
be able to identify which employers are making good-faith efforts to comply
with the law and which ones are, in fact, willfully non-complying.
And so you get down to the fine points of, you know, how can
you make this happen? And the existing Basic Pilot system that's been tried
over the last 10 years here seems to work fairly effectively, by providing a
database that allows for external verification of a person's work authorization
and eligibility used in primarily the Social Security number, but also using
IRS records and Department of Homeland Security records.
You know, there's still some bugs in the system. The system
works very, very well for U.S. citizens who have been in the system since
childhood. We've all had Social Security numbers, and so we get very high rates
of approval for U.S. citizens.
The problem tends to come up more with people who are newly
arrived but quite probably or possibly legally, you know, present immigrants
and who have not been in the system very long.
They may have some discrepancies in their records related to
different spellings of names, you know, juxtaposed dates of birth. Maybe they
use a day-month format for birth instead of a month-day format. These sorts of
little things can throw off the computer verification of that, resulting in
What happens when an employer gets what's called a tentative
non-confirmation from the system, do they, in fact, know to wait and actually
give the person advice on how to appeal that, or provide additional
information, or wait for a final confirmation, you know, or do they simply pass
that person over and move onto the next person whose employment eligibility is
more readily verifiable?
Protecting boths sides
JEFFREY BROWN: And from the business side, what are the
concerns? There are concerns that have been raised with this new potential
LAURA REIFF: Yes. Actually, the business community would
prefer not to be the document police. We believe it's within the purview of the
government to have to check employment eligibility and make sure that workers
that come into this country actually have the documents and the proper work
authorization. Employers shouldn't have to bear that burden.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why not?
LAURA REIFF: Because it's the government's job to make sure
that our borders are secure and that, when employees or when workers come
across the border, they have the proper documentation.
However, we understand post-9/11 that, you know, we're
willing to chip if and do our part, but we need a system. I guess what I'm
saying is we've accepted the fact that we need to have an employment
eligibility and verification system.
JEFFREY BROWN: Something's going to happen?
LAURA REIFF: It's going to happen; it's already happening. But
we need a system that is foolproof, it's fail-safe, that it is reliable and it
provides blanket protection from liability for employers when we do what we're
asked to do.
We need something that's fast, that's efficient. And what Kevin
has just described here is a system right now that can take -- you know, it can
take up to two months to get a Social Security number for somebody.
And if you're relying on the current Basic Pilot program,
you're not going to be able to put somebody on the payroll for two months,
because they don't have a Social Security number, so there are a lot of things
that need to be worked out in order to make this system really smooth-sailing
We're worried that we're going to -- if we have one of the
systems that's actually been proposed, that we're going to end up turning down
U.S. workers, which nobody wants.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you raised some of the civil libertarian
concerns over this, about privacy, about potential discrimination. Are there
protections being debated now or built into the bills?
KEVIN JERNEGAN: There are. It's a tricky situation. You have
to find a balance, and that one of the great problems from a point of view of
enforcement is right now, with the existing I-9 process, there are a wide
variety of documents that a person can submit in order to establish their
identity and employment eligibility.
That means that a prospective employer has to be able to
identify all of these documents and know which ones are real and which ones
aren't. That's kind of a heavy burden to put on an employer.
So there's a strong desire to try and consolidate, you know,
the list of documents down to one standard I.D. that, you know, everyone can
recognize, but then you get into issues like, you know, a national I.D. card. And,
you know, is that going to come with privacy issues that we should be concerned
You know, oftentimes, people who are, in fact, lawfully
present may not have those kinds of documents. For instance, where you talk
about -- some of the compromises that were discussed were requiring a Real I.D.
Act-compliant identity documents. These identity documents are not yet
available, will not be for quite some time.
Costs of a new system
JEFFREY BROWN: You're both raising technical issues, and I
guess there must be a cost issue, as well. What is at stake here? What are the
costs, and is there any evidence that people are ready to bear it?
LAURA REIFF: Well, you know, one of the proposals was to
actually have employers bear the burden of verifying the employment eligibility
of these workers, and that's a, you know, straight-out hard cost to employers.
But there's also a cost of having to implement a new system,
obtain equipment. A lot of our employers are small businesses. I'm an employer.
I employ people to work in my home.
What am I going to have to do to comply with this? What are
small businesses going to have to do? So there are those kinds of costs.
And then, with some of the proposals that have required
re-verification of the entire workforce, think about the administrative and the
human resource costs of going back, and getting these folks in, and then the
logistics of just dealing with re-verification.
So there are all kinds of costs that are incurred in dealing
with this system and, frankly, employers don't want to have to bear the brunt
JEFFREY BROWN: We just have a few seconds left. What are the
prospects here? We've said everybody wants it, but there's all kinds of issues
you've just brought out. What are the prospects?
KEVIN JERNEGAN: Well, that's the $50,000 question, isn't it?
I think that -- I mean, realistically everyone agrees that this is sort of a
necessary thing that has to happen, given the current, you know, time frame,
given the current zeitgeist.
You know, people are concerned about illegal immigration. We
need do something about it, so this is probably going to happen. The points
that are left are relatively minor ones.
JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Kevin Jernegan, Laura Reiff, thank you
both very much.
KEVIN JERNEGAN: Thank you, Jeff.
LAURA REIFF: Thanks, Jeff.