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The business case against E-Verify (and immigration enforcement of employers)

The Obama administration says it has stepped up immigration enforcement at workplaces through quiet audits of company personnel paperwork to catch a record number of employers who hire illegal workers. Advocates of E-Verify, a program that checks the immigration status of workers before or after they are hired, argue that it could significantly cut the number of undocumented immigrants in the workforce.

But many businesses don’t want to use it — partially because it keeps them from hiring illegal workers, the Fresno Bee reports:

The program has run into strong opposition from business groups that say it creates an administrative burden. But experts say the real reason is that E-Verify makes it harder to hire illegal workers.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, an association of agriculture businesses in the Western United States, acknowledged as much.

“It may work for Costco, but Costco doesn’t have the problem I have” – a shortage of legal residents willing to work in agriculture, he said. [...]

Farmers say they’d rather have a legal work force but need to hire illegal immigrants. Without them, crops would rot and competitors who do hire illegal workers would have an unfair advantage. In the end, they say, it’s the government’s job to make sure their work force is legal.

“We don’t want to be in the role of playing police officer – that’s not something any of our businesses should have to do,” said Ryan Jacobsen, director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.

The program is free, and the government already requires many contractors to use it. Republicans may push for a nationwide expansion of the program during the next legislative session, when they will have more say on immigration legislation in the GOP-led House.

The problem: It may be possible to pass a bill requiring businesses to use E-Verify, but Congress is extremely unlikely to pass any measures to change the legal status of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Advocates of visa reform, including agriculture producers, argue the government should give more visas to workers in certain sectors that Americans typically stay out of, such as migrant farm work. Numerous studies have confirmed that illegal immigrants don’t “steal” American jobs — at least broadly — although some may be hired over American workers in certain sectors.

The AgJOBS bill, which would revise the current farm worker visa system and allow some undocumented farm workers to gain legal status, is one proposal to allow current illegal workers to stay in the country if there is demand from employers. But as referenced in the Fresno Bee piece, there are a number of other industries where employers claim they need to hire undocumented workers.

Grisella Martinez, director of policy and legislative affairs at the pro-reform National Immigration Forum, told TWI that mandating E-Verify could significantly harm the economy if it weren’t coupled with some type of legalization program. “Numerous government reports have all pointed to the fact that to mandate a program like E-Verify without legalizing the workers who are already in our economy would be absolutely catastrophic,” she said.

Still, the government remains committed to cracking down on employers who hire illegal workers — partially to cut down on exploitation of foreign workers — despite the lack of visa reform or other legalization bills.

Government enforcement efforts are decreasing the number of companies that hire workers illegally, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Boston Globe reports that ICE arrested a “record-breaking” 187 employers last year for hiring undocumented workers after audits of the companies’ employment forms. In some cases, this led to the businesses signing up for E-Verify on their own.

But the employers quoted in the Globe piece voice similar frustrations to those in California about the crackdown. “It’s true from California to Maine: Farm businesses cannot get workers, and we need [agricultural] jobs,’’ Edward Flanagan, chairman of the American Frozen Food Institute, told the Globe. “Meanwhile, we are stuck in neutral. It’s a terribly polar subject, and business is caught in the middle.’’

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