Three Principles for Immigration Reform
The immigration reform fight rages on. Amnesty, or no amnesty, that is the question. Democrats are doing what they do best -- pandering to an aggrieved constituency by promising something for nothing. They are all but certain that this is a path to permanent and unrestrained electoral power for the most self-important group of Ivy Leaguers ever to summer in the Hamptons. Republicans oppose amnesty, but there is a sharp division over whether there should be any path at all to eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants. Senator Rubio has a plan to legalize their status, followed by an optional long and arduous path to citizenship. Eligibility for citizenship may be a showstopper. But even if conservatives lose that argument, there are some conditions that could ease the pain. No doubt, we are in for a bitter and robust battle.
The usual result of compromise with liberals is simply to move the bar further left for the next discussion. They never keep their promises to cut spending once they have banked tax increases. Similarly, they cannot be trusted to honor any agreement on border security or identity verification.
Agreement on three principles should precede any discussion of normalization for illegal immigrants. The first two have long been central to the conservative approach. The third is a new idea to raise revenue, while discouraging further undocumented immigration. Unless all three are incorporated into legislation with real teeth, there should be no new law.
Principle 1: No reform without stringent border control.
Republicans unanimously demand strong border security. Democrats are divided. There is no clear consensus on exactly what would even constitute adequate border enforcement, but Republicans swear they will pass a bill with real security prior to any concessions. We should hold them to that promise.
Principle 2: No reform without tamper-proof identity verification.
The E-verify identity system is not perfect, but there is some consensus that it provides a pretty good way to determine if any given worker is here legally. Even Democrats seem to accept that in any eventual bill, there must be a way to verify identities.
There is an annual study by the Pew Research Hispanic Center, done in conjunction with the Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security. The latest estimate, released on December 6, 2012, (with typically unjustified precision) is that there are "11.1 million undocumented workers or more."
For some twenty-five years, since the last general amnesty, it has been illegal to employ undocumented workers. The law is haphazardly enforced except to deny presidential appointments to high profile women with undocumented nannies. On paper, it actually imposes harsh fines and prison for hiring undocumented workers:
TITLE 8--ALIENS AND NATIONALITY; CHAPTER 12--IMMIGRATION AND NATIONALITY; SUBCHAPTER II-IMMIGRATION; Part VIII--General Penalty Provisions.
This part of the bill is really short---a mere 14,000 words on 33 pages.
Principle 3: No reform without a penalty --- or as Chief Justice John Roberts would call it, a tax -- on employers who hire undocumented workers.
One of the odder facts about the disconnect between law and reality is that employers withhold billions of dollars in FICA and other taxes from employees with fraudulent Social Security numbers. Presumably, most of these come from undocumented workers. It is the ultimate windfall tax. The workers are paying taxes but getting little or no benefit in return. There is some rough justice here. They get the benefit of living in the best country in the world, yet somehow, against all odds; they succeed without the government subsidies that American citizens take for granted.
Upscale liberals are sympathetic to the plight of poor exploited workers who mind their children and mow their lawns. The self-serving refrain is that these poor souls do jobs that Americans just won't do. But if there were no undocumented workers, employers would have to increase wages in order to attract Americans who suddenly realize there are no bad jobs; there are only low-paying jobs. Domestic help would get a lot more expensive for rich liberals.
In a very real sense, there is a symbiotic alliance between businesses and consumers. They share the bounty of artificially low wages paid to undocumented workers throughout the economy. It is low wage legal wage earners who suffer from the competition.
Employers are already withholding payroll and other taxes on their undocumented employees as prescribed by tax law. They can simply tack on a surcharge to their FICA payments. It could be a fixed amount per hour, and/or some percentage of wages. The exact amount would be set to at least equalize the playing field for American citizens. A surtax of $5.00 to $10.00 an hour would probably suffice.
The failure to enforce current laws is one reason to be suspicious of any immigration reform. The surtax replaces the failure to enforce the draconian penalties on companies that hire undocumented workers. Instead, grant a temporary legal status to gainfully employed workers if the surtax is paid. Their families also get that status. Once granted, it remains in force, conditioned on good behavior. There can be a path to permanent legal residency without citizenship. They can live here openly and legally as long as they are gainfully employed and the surtax is paid. There can be provisions for hardship or lost employment. One can imagine various bells and whistles. Perhaps employers should pay for their medical insurance. Since employers and employees are effectively being decriminalized, it is reasonable to demand some quid pro quo.
It may be naïve to think that Congress and the President would embrace this plan without larding it up. But it does provide a simple alternative to mass deportation or amnesty. Even if the three principles are not enacted as is, maybe they can capture the imagination of the electorate as an alternate framework to the hostile gridlock surrounding immigration laws.