Columnist Razvan Sibii: If you want ‘legal workers,’ legalize the ones you already have

  • In this 2018 photo, migrant farm workers transplant jalapeno sprouts from trucks into the soil at a farm in Lamont, Calif. Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Published: 3/14/2022 4:00:53 PM
Modified: 3/14/2022 4:00:11 PM

If we call those who come to the U.S. illegally “illegal aliens,” why don’t we call those who employ them illegally “illegal employers”? Why don’t we throw them in prison or put ankle monitors on them, like we do with undocumented workers caught in a raid on a poultry farm?

Of course, this double standard pales in comparison to the real hypocrisy: that tens of thousands of American business owners actively seek to hire undocumented workers because they’re the only ones willing to do backbreaking jobs for low wages but have no qualms voting for politicians who speak of those workers as “invaders” who threaten the U.S.

During the Cold War, the Eastern Bloc countries had a saying that revealed the rot afflicting the Communist social contract: “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.” It wasn’t a good life for most people, but appearances were maintained — until they weren’t. America’s present attitude toward undocumented immigration is characterized by a similar generalized pretense: foreign workers cross the border illegally and often pretend to be someone they are not in order to be able to work, employers pretend to screen for persons without authorization, and politicians pretend to protect America by passing anti-immigrant laws.

We expend a whole lot of effort to maintain appearances instead of admitting that undocumented workers come to America because America needs them, calls them, and then benefits from their presence.

At the heart of this great pretense lies a web of shrewd immigration regulations that give people the impression that legislators are being “tough on crime” (that is, on undocumented immigration) without going as far as to address the root causes of said “crime.” No laws illustrate this better than the laws that created E-Verify, an internet-based database of Social Security numbers and other identifying info that purportedly allows employers to check whether a person they just hired is authorized to work in the U.S.

Until 1986, it was legal to hire undocumented immigrants. The law changed when former president Ronald Reagan put his signature on a bipartisan agreement extending amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented people already in the U.S. and forbidding employers to “knowingly” hire people who were not authorized to work in this country. The associated requirement to collect information about the identities of all new employees later led to the creation of the E-Verify program.

Currently, 22 states require at least some employers to use E-Verify when they hire someone. The only state in the Northeast to have adopted it, Rhode Island, withdrew from it in 2007. However, all employers in the U.S. can enroll in the program if they want to, and plenty of policymakers have long called for a federal E-Verify mandate.

As befits such a massive charade, when politicians call for the implementation of E-Verify nationwide, they tend to justify it with empty talk about “common sense,” rather than actual proof that the policy is likely to achieve its intended effects. For what it’s worth, a few economists have been studying the consequences of E-Verify mandates, and here’s what they’ve been finding:

■When states adopt the system, male undocumented immigrants do tend to experience higher unemployment and lower wages. Female undocumented immigrants seem to be picking up the slack, as they tend to be employed in housekeeping and child care where E-Verify is generally not used.

■Even though some undocumented immigrants might be negatively affected by E-Verify, their loss does not seem to translate into a clear gain for documented immigrants or native-born Americans. A 2020 study of the agricultural sector in Arizona, for example, showed that employers responded to the introduction of E-Verify by switching to less profitable crops that required fewer workers, rather than raising the wages of their “legal workers.”

■Employers’ relationship with E-Verify is a pragmatic one, rather than an ideological one. When general unemployment is low, adoption rates are relatively high; when unemployment rises, employers forget to use the system. Likewise, industries that make copious use of undocumented labor (construction, agriculture, food services) are less likely to sign up for E-Verify than industries that don’t employ many unauthorized immigrants.

E-Verify mandates have created a flourishing black market for Social Security numbers and driving licenses. Since employers only check the information provided to them by the worker, many undocumented immigrants simply use someone else’s documentation or made-up identification. The employers can then say they did not “knowingly” hire unauthorized immigrants. “We pretend to work, they pretend to pay us.”

If you wanted to eliminate identity fraud, you would have to introduce a biometrics requirement (fingerprints, facial recognition, etc.) in the hiring process, says Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida and one of the main scholars studying the effects of E-Verify adoption.

However, given that “the groups that are most concerned about unauthorized immigration are probably also the groups who give the greatest voice to civil liberties and privacy,” says Zavodny, that “solution” would most likely be a non-starter.

What if undocumented workers didn’t have to pretend to be someone else in order to work, employers didn’t have to pretend that they checked their workers’ legal status, and politicians didn’t have to pretend that they’re saving America from “illegal aliens?”

Instead of passing laws for the sake of appearances, why don’t we pass one that would have concrete effects on the economy: the legalization of all those undocumented immigrants whose labor allows us to put food on our tables?

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.

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