The Monitor's View

Immigration reform rests on a national worker ID

Obama's pursuit of immigration reform this year must focus on the bipartisan idea of a national worker ID. It would do more than the jobs bill to open up work for the unemployed.

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During their day-to-day activities in public, some 10 million people in the United States live a lie. They pretend to be legal residents when they are not.

It is this corrosive wearing away of the rule of law in America that should be a prime concern as President Obama launches a new effort this month to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.

Mr. Obama faces rising pressure from Hispanic activists to fulfill a campaign promise for “comprehensive” reform. They plan a large rally in Washington March 21 to demand action. They know that any bill must start moving through Congress by May to stand a chance of passage this year.

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And if lawmakers also fail to provide a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, Hispanic groups plan to punish Democrats in the fall elections. After all, they argue, it is their increasing clout in US politics that helped put Obama in the White House.

The president’s best chance to resolve this issue, however, remains in first showing that government can enforce immigration laws, further stemming illegal border crossings and decreasing the high number of immigrants who overstay their visas. Without rigorous enforcement – that is sustainable for years – any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants would only invite more unlawful migration.

This week, Obama plans to start working on reform with a bipartisan team in the Senate, Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Lindsey Graham. A key idea coming from the senators is a new ID system to prevent employers from hiring illegal workers.

Such hiring only serves as a powerful magnet for people in other countries, especially Mexico, to risk their lives and break American law to reach the US.

The idea is to require a national ID card for legal workers using the latest technology in preventing fraud, such as biometric data about a person’s fingerprints or the veins on the backs of hands. It would be a different kind of identification system than already exists with a Social Security card or with the federal effort since 2005 to standardize state driver’s licenses. And it would either supplant or supplement a current system called E-Verify, in which employers can check an applicant’s status through a federal database. (For more on the ID plan, click here.)

The problems with E-Verify have been many – it is voluntary, fails to flag many illegal workers, and is prone to fraud. Employers seeking low-wage workers have little incentive to use it.

Obama could quickly reduce the nation’s high jobless rate with passage of a law requiring legal residents and Americans, even teenagers, to obtain a federal ID as legal workers. Migrants working outside the law would then be forced to come clean on their illegal activity, leave the country, and perhaps properly apply for a US visa – as millions of law-abiding people do around the world who wait years to enter the US.

To reach full employment, Obama needs to create about 8 million jobs – or nearly the number of illegal immigrants in the US.

After nearly 14 months in office, the president still needs to show a firm commitment to immigration enforcement. His record so far is mixed.

He seeks more funding for E-Verify and a program called Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) that screens applicants for welfare programs. But his proposed budget would also reduce the size of the border patrol by 180 officers and cut funding for the Southwest border fences.

And the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has all but ended federal raids on workplaces with a large number of illegal workers – raids which would need to be done humanely – in favor a more narrow focus on deporting illegals with criminal records.

Under Obama, local police are no longer encouraged to enforce federal immigration law, although local officials are receiving federal help in checking the legal status of people in county and city jails.

The last attempt by Congress at immigration reform failed in 2007 when it became clear that Americans wanted to see a long-term track record on immigration enforcement. The decline in the number of illegal aliens by about a million since January 2008, while aided by a recession, indicates that enforcement works.

An easy victory for Obama this year would be the passage of a national worker ID program along with other stepped-up enforcement measures. Only after that should Congress address what to do with the remaining immigrants who still live in the shadow of the law.

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