Immigration Hardliners Pushing Pointless SAVE Act Through Congress

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There’s nothing like a lot of well-organized noise to get lawmakers crackin’ on some truly brain-dead public policy. When people scream, ‘do something, anything!!’ legislators usually do, and the results are almost always ugly.

A good example is the SAVE Act, an enforcement-only immigration bill being hashed out in hearings this week on The Hill. It would cause abundant problems for employers and workers — citizens and legal immigrants as much as unauthorized workers — and would do absolutely nothing to fix our broken immigration system.

The bill would require employers to verify 130 million workers against a Social Security database over the next four years. So far, one percent of employers have been participating in a pilot program, and the error rate — the rate of false “no-match” findings — is around 8 percent. The overall number of incorrect records in the database is estimated to be around 17 million.

A creaky federal bureaucracy would be flooded with false no-matches, and they’d have to resolve each case within ten days or the employee — legal, illegal immigrants and citizens alike — would be fired if they failed to do so. If you have faith in the government’s ability to expedite those investigations in just ten days, then I have a lovely bridge you might consider as an investment property.

Of course, most employers who hire undocumented workers know they’re doing so, and choose to operate in our largely unregulated shadow economy because the incentives for doing so are great. That leaves lawmakers a choice between enacting very severe penalties for avoiding the system — penalties which would result in discrimination against workers who look like they might be undocumented — or set penalties that wouldn’t change the basic risk/benefit equation for employers in any real way. And as long as that’s the case, it wouldn’t significantly change the incentives for the workers.

“Enforcement only” has already proven to be ineffective in dealing with the kind of black markets in which employers buy unauthorized workers’ labor. It’s been 36 years since Richard Nixon first proclaimed a War on Drugs, and 35 years since the passage of the “Rockefeller” drug laws, with their long mandatory sentences for drug offenders. 25 years ago, Ronald Reagan promised a renewed effort in the drug war, with plenty of new law enforcement. All of these measures were unveiled with great fanfare amid promises that the “scourge” of illicit drugs would come to an end.

Billions of dollars and tens of thousands of incarcerations later, and anyone reading this in the U.S. can go purchase illegal drugs nearby and without much hassle.

And even if it weren’t an exercise in futility, who would enforce it? We have a sector of the economy where anything goes because the resources for enforcing workplace laws and worker protections have been slashed and slashed again during the past three decades.

The bill would also require law enforcement personnel to serve as ICE agents, investigating those suspected of immigration violations. That’s an invitation to racial profiling — between 70-80 percent of Latinos, for example, are citizens and/or permanent residents, and many would be asked to show their papers, please. But more than that, it’s a collosally stupid prioritization of finite law enforcement resources. Being in this country without paperwork isn’t a crime at all; entering without going through a checkpoint is a class B misdemeanor — the legal equivalent of passing a bad check for a small sum. And Congress would mandate that law enforcement agencies expend man- and woman-hours and other resources to catch these people? I’d prefer they did real cop stuff — focusing on violent crimes or major rip-offs.

The bill also resuscitates the infamous provisions from an earlier bill that was defeated two years ago that would make aiding or harboring undocumented immigrants a felony. The measure is so broadly written that critics say it would potentially criminalize social services agencies that serve immigrant communities, mandating prison sentences of up to five years for helping someone out without first checking to see that his or her papers are in order.

This is the kind of measure one contemplates when one wants to do something — when looking like one is addressing a perceived problem is more important than actually doing so.

It’s also being pitched as a way of protecting American workers from foreign competition. But its champions — over 170 Republicans and a handful of Bush Dog Democrats have so far signed the discharge petition to bring the bill to the floor for a vote — are also the lawmakers who are the least likely to do anything that might actually help American workers toiling in the lower end of the job market. It’s almost a perfect disconnect — the bill is attracting the exact same votes that can be counted on to oppose minimum wage increases, expanded worker safety measures, family leave, anti-union-busting measures, etc. The limits of their aspirations are evident: to beat up on immigrants in order to gain some faux-populist street cred. Helping working families isn’t on their agenda.

Most people don’t expect this bill to pass — it’s widely regarded as a way to target vulnerable Dems in “red” districts. The interesting thing is that recent election cycles have shown that there are very few gains to be made from taking a hardline stance on immigration. The true immigration hardliners continue to make a fundamental miscalculation: they believe, correctly, that a majority of the electorate are concerned with the impacts of a broken immigration system, and assume, incorrectly, that those anxieties mean that people are receptive to their brand of xenophobia. The reality is that most Americans want the system repaired in a sensible, pragmatic and humane way, but don’t share the hardliners’ visceral hatred of the foreign-born.

Until the conventional wisdom assimilates that duality of popular opinion, we’ll continue to debate pointless measures like the SAVE Act, regardless of the unintended consequences that would follow its passage.

You can let your representative know that you’re not falling for this kind of shortsighted pandering by asking them not to sign on to the discharge petition that would bring the measure to the floor for an election-year vote on yet another hot-button wedge issue.


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