When Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986, it was hailed as a victory for border security in exchange for an amnesty that addressed illegal immigration. For the first time in history, Congress made it a federal crime to employ undocumented workers. At that time, everyone — Democrats and Republicans — believed Congress had finally solved the problem of illegal immigration by cutting off the “jobs” magnet.
But much of the bill was never enforced and, 32 years later, it’s clear Congress must do more.
Instead of shutting off the jobs magnet, 1986 reform encouraged more illegal immigration by incentivizing employment-document fraud and identity theft. To make matters worse, employers have very little ability to determine the validity of employment documents. If an employer suspects a document is stolen or spoofed and refuses to hire someone, they face the prospect of lengthy and expensive discrimination lawsuits. Because of this, demand for unlawful employment remains. Today, the U.S. faces a crisis, with an estimated population of 11 million to 15 million undocumented immigrants.
There is a proven, cost-effective tool to help reduce unlawful employment and to remove future incentives for illegal immigration. E-Verify is a voluntary, quick and free workforce verification system provided by the government that checks an individual’s employment eligibility. E-Verify is the most effective tool available to fight illegal immigration because it drastically reduces or eliminates the jobs magnet.
A recent study found making E-Verify mandatory decreases unlawful immigration, and also encourages current undocumented immigrants to return home. The study reviewed the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which requires every employer to use E-Verify, and found since implementation in 2008, undocumented immigrants either moved to states without mandatory E-Verify or returned to their home countries. This study mirrors other research showing immigration decreases by as much as 50 percent in a single year.
Given the clear effect E-Verify has on future illegal immigration and the current population, we are disappointed it has not been a priority in this year’s immigration debates. We have long been proponents of requiring workforce verification nationally, and we believe mandatory E-Verify should be part of any solution.
E-Verify is supported by 82 percent of voters and many businesses, particularly those already following the law and seeking to employ a legal workforce. One-third of employers voluntarily use the program and 1,500 more sign up each week.
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We understand requiring E-Verify presents challenges for some industries, particularly the agriculture sector. We are not unsympathetic to those challenges. However, in order for Congress to address broader legal workforce issues, the American people must first have trust in our nation’s lawful immigration system. The only way to do that is to stop illegal immigration. E-Verify does that, and it is a critical first and necessary step toward building that trust.
It is our sincere hope the administration and congressional leaders will commit to making mandatory E-Verify part of any reform proposal.
At a minimum, any reform legislation should contain a permanent authorization of the current voluntary verification program, incentives for employer participation, legal immunity for using the E-Verify system, and information sharing between the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. Those steps — while not as effective as mandatory E-Verify — are at least improvements.
We look forward to continued discussions. And we hope Congress will recognize the mistakes of 1986 and finally shut off the jobs magnet once and for all. The American people depend on us to restore integrity to our immigration system. We cannot fail them.
• Chuck Grassley is a Republican U.S. senator from Iowa and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Lamar Smith is a Republican U.S. representative from Texas and is a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.