Hiring illegals is just as illegal

Wink, wink. That's been the unofficial policy of the government toward employers of illegal aliens, and a big reason why immigration reform of 20 years ago didn't work. Now Congress has a chance to drop the wink for a steely-eyed squint.

When lawmakers return to work next week, the contentious issue of what to do about illegal migrants awaits them. If they can agree on legislation - and the number of such immigrants has reached such a level that they would be derelict if they didn't - it must put real teeth into enforcement at the workplace.

America has seen what happened after a 1986 law granted legal status to illegal aliens (as a Senate bill would generally do) without adequate policing of employers. The magnet of a sure job, few questions asked, only serves to attract more unlawful entrants - and suppress wages for the poorest working Americans, strain public services, and in the post-9/11 age, jeopardize the nation's security.

The 1986 reform called for criminal and civil punishment of employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers. But laws and fines are meaningless unless they're applied.

Republicans and Democrats alike have buckled under pincer like pressure from businesses which rely on cheap labor and from advocacy groups which watch out for illegals.

Sanctions against violators have dropped steeply, with the feds notifying only three employers of fines in 2004. And hardly anyone's walking the worksite police beat - just 65 federal agents were assigned to worksites in 2004. Considering the roughly 7 million illegal aliens working in the US, that effort isn't laughable, it's a crying shame - and a taint on employers who play this game.

The House has heard that cry and passed an enforcement bill that considerably increases employer sanctions. (A first-time offense would cost not less than $5,000 per illegal worker; multiple lawbreakers would pay up to $40,000 per alien.)

The House bill also requires mandatory participation of all employers in an employee-verification program that's now voluntary. The program is an easy-to-use, quick Internet or phone check that's run through the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases. It would replace the current practice that allows employers to accept an array of documents (including report cards!) as proof of worker legality, and which provides an easy out for not "knowingly" hiring illegals.

As for inspectors, lawmakers are counting on the 2004 intelligence bill, which authorized 800 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents a year over five years (a downside is that they're not specifically designated as worksite agents).

The House effort serves as a good start toward real enforcement. But the employee-verification program has database problems and will require serious technical and personnel support to ramp up from handling 5,500 voluntary participants to roughly 8 million. And it protects contractors who hire subcontractors - a big provider of illegal labor.

The more important issue is whether the political will - and thus the necessary resources - will be there to enforce new laws. If not, today's effort will be wasted, as it was two decades ago.

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