Largely overlooked in the immigration debate roiling Congress and the nation are two themes that should be front and center. The first is that all efforts to control illegal immigration will be futile unless Congress requires workers to have forgery-proof, theft-proof identity cards — ideally embedded with biometric data matching the bearer’s thumbprint or iris scan — and imposes heavy penalties on employers who hire people without such cards. The second is that nobody seems to have any idea how to interest the millions of chronically unemployed Americans — especially inner-city males — in the low-paying jobs that go to illegal immigrants because Americans supposedly don’t want them.
So here’s a modest three-part plan. It would cut down the flow of illegals as efficiently and humanely as possible; use a federally funded minimum-wage increase to bring at least some unemployed Americans into the job market; and, while we’re at it, narrow the vast income gap between skilled and unskilled workers.
First, Congress should create a system of forgery-proof, theft-proof identity cards and a more robust enforcement process to put teeth in the laws against employing illegal immigrants. The influx of illegals will plunge if these workers cannot find jobs.
Experience shows that as long as there are jobs for illegal immigrants, neither a wall along the Mexican border — unless festooned with machine-gun towers and troops under orders to shoot climbers on sight — nor such punitive measures as making illegal immigration a felony will greatly slow the influx.
The 1986 immigration reform law sought to slow the flow of illegals by slapping sanctions on employers who hire them (while giving amnesty to the millions already here). But a coalition of employers eager to hire low-paid, hardworking illegals and libertarians obsessed with the specter of Big Brother killed proposals to create forgery-proof, theft-proof identity cards.
The result was to render the employer sanctions almost completely ineffective. Illegals can easily buy forged Social Security cards, driver’s licenses, and other identification documents upon which employers are entitled to rely. And many employers are happy to hire illegals as long as their paperwork passes muster.
The "Real ID" law adopted by Congress last year requires states to standardize driver’s licenses by 2008 and to deny ordinary licenses to illegals. But it allows employers to accept other forms of identification and does not require that driver’s licenses include Social Security numbers.
The bills adopted by the full House and the Senate Judiciary Committee do contain detailed provisions to create more ID cards that can be authenticated. But they don’t go far enough. For example, they don’t require job applicants, now or ever, to present biometrically verifiable cards.
Why is there not a more serious effort to solve the fake-ID problem that is the Achilles’ heel of all efforts to slow illegal immigration — not to mention efforts to identify possible terrorists? Because of the intransigence both of employers who like the status quo and of civil libertarians imbued with a peculiarly American fear of slipping down the slope toward totalitarianism.
Libertarians of the Left and the Right worry about society slipping into such police-state habits as cops randomly stopping pedestrians and demanding to see their papers. Libertarians also warn that high-tech identity cards could include all sorts of private information that would inevitably fall into the wrong hands.
And they dispute claims that a reliable identity-card system would help prevent terrorist attacks.
The libertarians may be right on the last point. Al Qaeda has plenty of eager young recruits who — like Mohamed Atta — have clean records and could obtain valid biometric passports or visas to enter the United States under their own names as legal tourists or students.
But we are already a long way down the slope that scares civil libertarians, and it has proven not to be very slippery. Various laws already require employers, airlines, security screeners, bartenders, and many others to demand ID cards. This has not led to random identity checks on the streets or other police-state measures. There is no reason to suppose that requiring authenticatable ID cards would either.
As for concerns about privacy, a biometric ID card establishing that a job applicant is legally qualified to work, and is the person he says he is, need not contain any more private information than is already printed on your driver’s license. And the right to privacy does not include a right to lie about who you are.
Second, as President Bush and others have suggested to a greater or lesser extent, Congress should in some way grandfather the millions of illegals who have already settled here to avoid disrupting their lives and those of the many Americans who depend on them. A forgery-proof, theft-proof identity card would do more harm than good if adopted as part of a punitive, enforcement-only immigration law.
No force on earth is going to trigger the departure of very many of the more than 11 million illegals who have already settled here in pursuit of their own American dreams and (in many cases) have had children who are U.S. citizens and formed bonds with their employers and others.
A law requiring dismissal of all current employees who could not produce biometric ID cards could be enforced only on a random, inherently capricious basis and would only drive those employees fired by law-abiding employers into the hands of unscrupulous exploiters.
A law barring employers from hiring newly arrived illegals without authenticatable ID cards, on the other hand, would be both enforceable and relatively humane. Mexicans and others weighing the pros and cons of sneaking across the border would be on notice that they would have a very hard time finding jobs and would be constantly at risk of dismissal and deportation.
Third, Congress should raise the minimum wage from the current $5.15 to at least $9.15 per hour, for Americans and legal residents only. And to dispel concerns about killing jobs that aren’t worth $9.15 per hour to employers, Congress should reimburse employers for some or all of the increase.
This higher wage would meet — or at least test — the suggestions by Bush and others that we need an annual influx of as many as 400,000 low-skilled "guest workers" (if not illegals) to clean our offices and hotel rooms, cut our grass, plant our gardens, staff our chicken factories, pick our fruit, and do other jobs that Americans won’t take.
More Americans would be willing to take such jobs if they paid more. The jobs would pay more if employers could no longer tap into a constant stream of illegal immigrants willing to work for subsistence wages. And if unskilled jobs paid a lot more, they might alleviate one of our most intractable social problems by luring into the job market young, unemployed inner-city males and others who now prefer lives of sponging off others, idleness, drugs, and petty crime.
Hence my proposal. The cost to the government would be small change in the context of the current federal budget. About 2 million workers currently earn the minimum wage or less, according to Labor Department data. Many are part-timers. Assuming an average workweek of 30 hours, or 1,500 hours per year, a $4 hike in the minimum wage would cost about $6,000 per worker per year. That’s about $12 billion in all — one-fourth of the net worth of a single man, Microsoft mogul Bill Gates. Add to that a few more billion to cover the raises of workers now earning between $5.15 and $9.15 an hour.
I am not so naive as to assume that a $9.15 minimum wage would inspire millions of inner-city males to abandon lives of idleness and drugs for work mowing lawns, cutting up chickens, or picking fruit. But it might pull some of them — the ones motivated to climb out of the underclass — into the job market. That would be good for them and good for the rest of us.
It might be argued that a government-subsidized minimum-wage increase would duplicate the Earned Income Tax Credit. And so it would to some extent. But for some workers, the prospect of taking more money home every week would be a more powerful incentive than the promise of an Internal Revenue Service check months down the road for those who can figure out how to fill out and file the right forms.
It might also be argued that a government-paid minimum-wage increase would go mostly to people who are already working minimum-wage jobs and thus need no new incentive. But this is no objection unless you begrudge an exceedingly modest transfer of wealth from those of us who are well off to those of our fellow citizens who are willing to work but are struggling to get by.