A worthy check on illegal workers

Rules to check Social Security numbers of workers are a needed step for enforcement.

The backlash has been swift and powerful. No sooner did the Bush administration announce new measures to enforce the nation's immigration laws last week than opponents jumped to their feet to object . But Washington must resist and give enforcement a chance to work.

Standing up to the critics won't be easy. Businesses that depend on illegal immigrants for low-wage labor are warning of disaster under the new regulations, especially those that affect the workplace.

The most criticized rule requires employers to follow up on "no-match" letters from the Social Security Administration. These notices alert them when the nine-digit sequence provided by their workers fails to match the Social Security database.

Businesses routinely ignore the letters for lack of consequence. Now, if their identified workers are unable to clear up the mismatch and prove legal status, they must be fired – or employers will face significantly higher fines of up to $10,000 per employee (not to mention criminal charges).

Business are sounding dooms-day warnings: At least two-thirds of the workers in construction and agriculture are illegal migrants, so if the law is enforced, crops may very well rot in the fields and the rebuilding effort in New Orleans screech to a halt (employers could alleviate this by paying higher wages). Consumer prices would probably rise.

If only Congress had passed "comprehensive" immigration reform this year, employers lament. Then there would be enough legal workers. Then America would have faced up to economic reality.

In this case, however, political reality has the upper hand, and deservedly so. The reason behind the failure of the immigration "grand bargain" (guest workers and a path to legalization in exchange for tougher enforcement) is that neither lawmakers nor the American public believed the enforcement half would ever be fulfilled.

And why should they? The record is abysmal. "There is a credibility problem the government has built up over 30 years," admitted Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, when he announced the new regulations Aug. 10.

No doubt, greater enforcement will have "economic consequences," as Mr. Chertoff admitted. It could also drive illegals further underground, mistakenly entangle legal workers, and spur trade in fake documents.

But administration plans to ease up on temporary work visas should help, and besides, fulfilling the law can't be held hostage to potential problems. Those problems need to be addressed, not run from.

In the end, there's no other way to hoe this row – to reach an agreement that accommodates both economic and political reality – than to restore credibility by enforcing the law. Americans rightly question government tolerance of illegals, which can lead to the exploitation of foreign labor, stretches social services, and thumbs its nose at those waiting to enter the US legally.

More vigorous enforcement is already significantly reducing illegal crossings on the US-Mexican border and spurring more employers to police their own workforce (just as Americans police themselves at tax time).

These are healthy trends – not for a policy of enforcement only, as critics charge, but for one of enforcement first, then reform.

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