The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 4, 2005
"Catching and deporting illegal immigrants along the border is only part of the responsibility. America's immigration laws apply across all of America, and we will enforce those laws throughout our land."
These comments, from President Bush's speech Monday in Tucson, seem to be the first time he has ever publicly referred to interior enforcement of the immigration laws. And that's no surprise, since this administration has effectively abandoned such enforcement. In 2004, only three employers were cited for knowingly hiring illegal aliens. That's one-two-three. In the entire country.
And yet, for all the attention devoted to fences and agents on the border, interior enforcement - especially of the ban on hiring illegals - is the key to reducing illegal immigration. Only by turning off the magnet of jobs can coming here illegally be made unappealing enough to reduce the flow and allow border agents to cope with the remaining illegal crossers.
This isn't a new idea. Congress prohibited the knowing employment of illegal aliens nearly 20 years ago, in the big 1986 immigration law that also gave amnesty to nearly 3 million illegals. But interest groups who wanted the law to fail prevented Congress from mandating the development of a computerized means for businesses to verify whether new hires were legal.
This left companies to face a blizzard of fake documents, so that even those legitimate, patriotic employers who wanted to hire only legal workers had no good way of knowing who was who.
The immigration service did eventually develop an experimental system to check the legal status of new workers, and it's now accessible on the Web and easy to use (my own think tank is enrolled). Unfortunately, it's voluntary, and only a relative handful of the nation's 6 million businesses participate.
This is a problem because until the verification process is made part of the normal hiring process for all businesses, those that do participate will be at a disadvantage - since their competitors who aren't in the program will continue to hire cheaper illegal labor.
Nearly all the major immigration bills in Congress at least pay lip service to the need for a national, mandatory roll-out of such a system. But even if such a measure were to pass tomorrow, it would take some time to implement, if only to ramp up the capacity of the system to handle millions of requests a year.
In the meantime, there are things the President can do - right now - to isolate illegal aliens from mainstream society, so that fewer new ones will come and many who are here (especially more recent arrivals) will be forced to give up and go home. For instance, in 2002, the Social Security Administration sent out nearly 1 million "no-match" letters to employers who submitted fake or mismatched Social Security numbers on behalf of employees.
This tactic was so effective at exposing illegal workers that activist groups alerted the White House and had it stopped. Restarting this initiative would go a long way toward excluding illegals from the bulk of the economy.
Also, the U.S. Department of the Treasury in 2002 gave banks the green light to accept the Mexican government's illegal-alien ID card for purposes of opening accounts. This further embedded illegals here, and could be reversed with a single phone call from the White House.
There are other changes in interior enforcement that are needed as well, such as systematic cooperation between federal immigration authorities and state and local police; ending the culture of fraud which has come to dominate every aspect of immigration processing; and tougher security standards for identification documents.
But without a commitment to enforce the law, it doesn't matter much what Congress does.
Elsewhere in his speech Monday, the President made his views clear: "We will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary-worker program." The President's refusal to undertake even those enforcement measures which cost nothing and require no new laws or complex computer systems is powerful evidence that the President's tough talk on enforcement is simply a smoke screen to camouflage the President's amnesty program. A genuine commitment to enforcing immigration law - demonstrated not with words but with deeds - is the most important immigration policy change that America needs.
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.