Employer Enforcement Better Than Border Security, Analyst Says

By Nathan Burchfiel | July 7, 2008 | 8:23pm EDT

(CNSNews.com) - An economist who studies the causes and effects of illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States suggested Monday that internal enforcement of labor laws would do more to curb illegal immigration than tightening the border.

Gordon Hanson, an economics professor at the University of California - San Diego, said the U.S. government could minimize illegal immigration by putting pressure on employers who hire workers in the country without permission.

"If we wanted to stop illegal immigration, we could do a pretty good job, but it wouldn't involve so much a focus on the border as it would involve increased monitoring of U.S. employers," Hanson said at a discussion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.

The Employment Verification Basic Pilot Program (EVP) was created in 1997. Employers can voluntarily join the program, which allows them to verify a job applicant's eligibility to work by comparing their personal information with data kept by the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

While the program has seen some success on a small-scale voluntary basis, some skeptics worry about its ability to handle verification requests reliably from more than seven million employers and 140 million employees if the program was made mandatory.

Hanson, author of "Why Does Immigration Divide America? Public Finance and Political Opposition to Open Borders," acknowledged that DHS "has had problems with rolling out this program" but was optimistic that "we could develop this over time."

"If we wanted to have serious monitoring and enforcement of U.S. labor law, we probably have the technology to do it. It's a question of whether we have the political will to do it," Hanson said.

He said shifting from a border enforcement philosophy to a focus on internal enforcement would constitute a "dramatic break with U.S. policy." Enforcement of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal to hire illegal aliens, has been lax, Hanson argued.

The law allows employers what Hanson called a "loophole" to plausibly deny that they knew they were hiring an illegal resident. A form called the I-90 requires employers to verify that they saw what appeared to be legal documents verifying the worker's eligibility but are not required to make sure the documents are authentic.

"If you look at the number of employers who were investigated for hiring illegal immigrants, it declines dramatically over the [1990s]," Hanson said.

No control over the border

Hanson said the government has a limited ability to control the number of people who cross the border illegally. The government and other researchers estimate that around 300,000 Mexicans have entered the country illegally every year since the 1990s, in spite of a dramatic increase in border security.

"We have a limited ability to affect the number of people who are in the country through a pure border enforcement strategy unless we're willing to truly militarize the border," Hanson said.

He said advocates of a militarized border "need to think about the cost-effectiveness of this, the effectiveness of monitoring employers versus the cost of building an impenetrable border barrier, which can get very, very expensive."

Enforcing a secure border without militarizing it would be difficult, Hanson said, because of the incentives for Mexicans to enter the country illegally. According to his research, Mexican workers can make as much as $12,000 more every year in the U.S. than they would in Mexico.

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