(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following op-ed was published today in Politico, a leading non-partisan publisher of political news.
(Join the national discussion about this blog at: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0211/48748.html )
OBAMA'S IMMIGRATION OPPORTUNITY
By: Roy Beck
February 3, 2011
The uniforms or the pencil pushers?
That is shaping up as the primary immigration debate in Congress and the state legislatures. The question is how to move illegal foreign workers from their U.S. jobs to make room for unemployed Americans.
In this debate, President Barack Obama has an opportunity for another middle-ground victory that would enhance his “jobs first” credentials.
The president is now under attack from House Republicans, who have launched a series of hearings about the administration’s deep cuts in “hard” enforcement —using uniformed and armed personnel for workplace raids and arrests of illegal workers — while relying primarily on the “soft” enforcement of auditors and computers.
The Obama administration has just solidified its commitment to the “soft” style, announcing a new Employment Compliance Inspection Center, intended to increase audits to find suspect employers. The administration already achieved big percentage jumps in its fines on businesses that violate immigration laws.
We just saw this in Minnesota, where hundreds of jobs were immediately filled with Americans and legal immigrant workers after one of these audits motivated Chipotle restaurants to fire hundreds of illegal workers. The jobs were opened up without personnel wearing SWAT-type vests, without handcuffs, without arrests and without detaining and separating the illegal workers from their families.
Obama apparently views this as the humane way to open up jobs for unemployed Americans.
But “hard” advocates protest that when the government fails to arrest and deport the illegal workers, the net result is that the same number of Americans end up unemployed — since the fired illegal workers are left free to take jobs elsewhere.
That conclusion seemed to be validated this week, when the Pew Hispanic Center reported that the number of U.S. jobs held by illegal foreign workers has remained steady at about 8 million — just barely below the level in 2007 before the recession and disappearance of millions of U.S. jobs.
Clearly, the current “soft” approach is not significantly helping the 24 million Americans and legal immigrants who want a full-time job but can’t find one (the U-6 unemployment category). These are disproportionately less-educated Americans, who are competing in the same construction, service, manufacturing and transportation fields where at least 7 million of the foreign workers now hold jobs.
Does that mean that Obama’s preference for opening the jobs without the uniforms can’t work? Not necessarily. The biggest available “soft” tool is still on the shelf – national mandatory use of E-Verify for all employers and all employees.
Obama showed his faith in E-Verify a year and a half ago, when he signed an executive order requiring all federal contractors to use it. But he needs Congress to require all other employers to use the system to ensure that U.S. jobs are restricted to American citizens and legal immigrants.
At the same time, Republicans who want more “hard” enforcement also tend to be big supporters of the “soft” mandatory E-Verify approach.
Here is a small patch of common immigration policy ground that could result in millions of unemployed Americans and immigrants getting back to work.
Agreeing on a clean mandatory E-Verify bill would provide Republicans a major victory against illegal immigration — without their having to accept anything they don’t like or giving up separate efforts to beef up “hard” enforcement.
And it would give Obama a huge opportunity to show that “soft” enforcement is enough — without having to increase arrests and deportations.
Those who would most benefit from this common-ground effort are among the weakest members of our society, particularly less-educated younger adults, who are competing most directly with non-agricultural illegal workers. The U-6 unemployment rate among all young adults (18-29) with a high school degree is running around 30 percent. It is even worse for Latino Americans (around 35 percent) and black Americans (around 40 percent).
Obama should ask House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to help those vulnerable Americans by giving him the most important tool that his pencil pusher strategy needs to succeed.
ROY BECK is Founder & CEO of NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, Feb 3rd 2011 @ 5:56pm EST