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Enforcing sanctions

By Malcolm R. Lovell Jr. / June 22, 1987



UNLESS Congress votes further delays, the United States government is to begin shortly a major experiment, the imposition of warnings and then penalties against employers of illegal aliens. There is a public interest in successful enforcement of employer sanctions. If poorly enforced, sanctions could be a device in the hands of unscrupulous employers to exploit illegal aliens. But effectively enforced, sanctions can curb illegal immigration, protect job prospects and labor standards for less skilled US workers and legal residents, and safeguard the newly won rights of the 2 million or more illegal aliens that amnesty will bring out of the shadows. Effective sanctions can also help end a form of labor subsidy that has distorted investment decisions and rewarded less innovative companies.

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The decade-long experience of some major Western European nations in enforcing employer sanctions effectively offers some lessons. First and most obvious is that we must provide enough compliance officers for the two enforcement agencies leading the effort, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Labor Department's Employment Standards Administration. In last fall's Immigration Reform Act, Congress proclaimed the need for adequate funding for both agencies. But the modest sense of urgency and commitment displayed in following up has not been promising. Employer sanctions have many enemies. Those who lost the 15-year legislative battle against them now seek to convert sanctions into a symbolic law reminiscent of the Volstead Act or the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit by starving them of resources.

America's employers by and large have long displayed profound goodwill in cooperating voluntarily in enforcement of federal tax and labor laws, a civic asset that must be drawn on once again in making sanctions work. In return, employers have the right to expect evenhanded, uniform enforcement among industries and regions, clear rules, and a light paper-work burden. Nothing could ease paper work more than a tamper-proof system of identification for eligible workers, which would relieve well-intentioned employers of perplexing uncertainties and threats of discrimination charges. Most Western European states are ahead of the US in secure identification with no loss of democracy.

The Europeans learned from experience that fines and other penalties must be strong enough to deter, or they will simply become a cost of doing business often shifted to the workers themselves. We can also expect subcontracting, dummy fronts, and short-term hires to be used as evasions here, as they were in Europe. They must be met by extra enforcement vigilance.

Finally, the French and German governments found that immigration and labor enforcement officials could not do it alone. National and local revenue, farming, social welfare, safety, and law enforcement agencies concerned with the workplace also had a stake in effective sanctions and were brought in on enforcement.

It is clear from Western Europe's experience that illegal immigration is a deeply rooted social practice. Employer sanctions can deter, but they work best when meshed with other remedies. As we strive for effective enforcement, we must first of all back up sanctions with more-effective manpower training and labor market services to meet the needs of employers and ensure full and efficient use of our ample domestic labor force. American workers and employers can gain from an end to exploitation at the workplace, along with hundreds of thousands of newly legalized workers whom we have promised the full protection of our laws.

Malcolm R. Lovell Jr. is director of the Labor and Management Institute of the School of Government and Business Administration at George Washington University. He was assistant secretary of labor for manpower from 1970 to 1973 and undersecretary of labor from 1981 to '83.