US hiring bans on illegal aliens can work. New GAO study shows such sanctions effective in Europe, Hong Kong

Laws that prohibit the hiring of illegal aliens are proving effective in France, West Germany, Hong Kong, and a number of other nations, according to a new study by the US General Accounting Office. The GAO report could bolster support in Congress for tough employer sanctions to stem the rising tide of illegal immigration into the United States.

Employer sanctions have been highly controversial in Washington. Bills have been proposed that would impose heavy fines and even prison sentences on employers who repeatedly hired workers here illegally.

Some members of Congress argue that such laws could result in job discrimination in the US against Hispanics, Asians, and other immigrant groups.

Other members of Congress, however, say that only by imposing fines on employers can the increasing flow of illegal aliens into the US be stemmed. They say it is the ``job magnet'' that is drawing 500,000 new illegal aliens into the US every year.

The GAO's newest findings are especially significant because an earlier study by the same agency came to a different conclusion. In that earlier study, the GAO found that up until 1982, sanctions had done little to stem the loss of jobs to aliens in major European countries.

A number of those nations now report that the laws have been strengthened and have become ``a moderate or great deterrent against illegal alien employment,'' the GAO says.

The newest study was requested by Rep. Romano L. Mazzoli (D) of Kentucky, chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration, refugees, and international law. Mr. Mazzoli, along with Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming, has been a leading sponsor of immigration reform bills in Congress.

The GAO study has not yet been officially released, but copies were obtained by the Monitor and some other newspapers.

The argument over sanctions has been one of the most devisive, yet crucial, aspects of the immigration debate. Advocates of immigration reform, including the Reagan administration, have argued that without sanctions, the illegal immigration problem will continue indefinitely.

Officials at the US Immigration and Naturalization Service estimate that 6 million to 12 million illegal aliens now live in the US. Most originally came from Mexico; but in recent years, there have been growing numbers from the Philippines, China, Central America, South America, Africa, India, Pakistan, Haiti, and a number of other nations and regions.

Experts warn that unless Congress acts, the problem will steadily worsen. The eventual result, they say, could be a backlash in the US against all forms of immigration, both legal and illegal.

Arnold P. Jones, senior associate director at GAO, noted in a letter to Mr. Mazzoli that his agency's 1982 report had been used by some opponents of reform. These opponents had cited the earlier GAO report as proof that sanctions don't work.

Mr. Jones writes: ``Our report did not come to that conclusion.''

What the 1982 report did say was that penalties were too small to be effective, and that there was not adequate enforcement, he observes.

That has now changed. Enforcement has been strengthened, and some laws have been tightened. As a result, in West Germany the number of fines imposed rose from 3,179 in 1982 to 4,008 in 1984. In France, the number of employers penalized rose from 1,082 in 1982 to 2,519 in 1984.

Hong Kong, with one of the most stringent laws, found that sanctions have reduced the size of the illegal work force. Without sanctions, ``the problem of aliens working illegally [in Hong Kong] would be greater than it is because of the financial incentives that exist for employers to hire cheap alien labor,'' the GAO report states.

The GAO report surveyed the British colony of Hong Kong and eight countries, including West Germany, France, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Spain, and Sweden. Only Italy and Canada reported that sanctions had failed to help.

One reason: Fines for violating the law in both nations are very low.

The GAO found that ``little or no discrimination'' against citizens or aliens in the countries legally has resulted from employer sanction laws.

European countries, however, generally have long-established, widely accepted national identity systems. Employers can easily check a job applicant's legal status.

Since there is no such national ID system in the US, it is unclear whether this could present unexpected problems of discrimination based on a person's appearance or accent.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.