By Alex Nowrasteh, Cato Institute
Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided many meat processing plants in Mississippi on Aug. 7 and arrested 680 suspected illegal immigrants. The raids were front-page news as some of their children were pleading on television for the government to release their parents. Political pundits were busy excusing the raids and calling for more or highlighting the plight of the families left behind and the supposed hypocrisy of immigration enforcers who aren’t targeting President Trump’s properties.
Although the plight of families and discrepancies in enforcement based on possible political sensitivities is worth investigating, the long-term lesson from the Mississippi raids is that E-Verify does not stop the hiring of illegal immigrants. Mississippi passed a mandate that required all firms to run all new hires through E-Verify at the point of hire as of July 1, 2011. According to the promises made by E-Verify proponents, there should have been zero illegal immigrants employed in Mississippi — yet ICE had to raid some plants there. Rather than showing the strength of government immigration enforcement efforts, the raids in Mississippi show that E-Verify mandates are incapable of preventing illegal immigrants from working.
This post will explain how E-Verify functions (I won’t say “works”), how illegal immigrants get around the system, how immigration restrictionists want to reform E-Verify, and why the real solution is increasing legal immigration.
E-Verify is a government system whereby employers enter the identity information of new hires into an online portal. The system compares these data with information held in the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security databases. The employee is work authorized if the databases decide that the data are valid. A flag raised by either database returns a “tentative non-confirmation,” requiring the employee and employer to sort out whatever error has been flagged. If the employee and employer cannot correct the errors, the employee receives a “final non-confirmation” and the employer must terminate the worker.
Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and South Carolina have mandated E-Verify for all new hires. Arizona was the first state to mandate it on Jan. 1, 2008, South Carolina mandated it on July 1, 2010, Mississippi on July 1, 2011, and Alabama on April 1, 2012. In those four states, the law demands that every employer must run every new hire’s identity information through the E-Verify system. Cheerleaders for the E-Verify system, who have repeatedly presented it as a silver bullet that will solve illegal immigration, have yet to confront the reality that this system did not prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants in Mississippi or too many other places.
How E-Verify Fails
E-Verify’s bark is worse than its bite. After the Arizona government first mandated it in 2008, the illegal immigrant population of Arizona fell dramatically until illegal immigrants discovered how to get around the system. Since then, E-Verify mandates have had negligible effects on illegal immigrant populations in states where it was mandated. Don’t take my word for it. Former Arizona state Republican Sen. Rich Crandall said that E-Verify “was the great hope that never was … it was promised as the silver bullet to immigration problems. E-Verify was going to solve our challenges with immigration.”
The first reason E-Verify fails is that illegal immigrant workers use other people’s identification to get work authorized. If an illegal immigrant gives a legal person’s identification to their employer to check through E-Verify, the system approves the identification — which means the illegal worker is approved. Many of these workers pass by using stolen identities, as in the case of the Mississippi raids, but many also “borrow” identities from willing lenders. This is an illustrative example:
An unauthorized immigrant from Zacatecas, Manuel had first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area and sought work in construction. However, because the construction industry in San Francisco is unionized, Manuel had discovered that potential employers would check his I-9 form with E-Verify, a federal database that matches Social Security cards and names. So Manuel contacted an uncle in Zacatecas who had obtained a Social Security card in the early 1970s when he had first migrated to California — to ask about using his card. His uncle, who had returned to Mexico permanently with no plans to reenter the United States, agreed.
When next applying for work, Manuel presented his uncle’s Social Security card and a fake legal permanent resident card (green card) bearing his uncle’s name — which he had purchased from a local vendor — to the employer. The employer, in turn, was able to verify that the SSN was on file with the Social Security Administration (SSA) and that it matched the uncle’s name. This ploy allowed Manuel the luxury of finding work in a sector of the economy normally closed to the unauthorized. In entering a unionized construction job, Manuel benefited from more comfortable work conditions and employer-provided benefits. Moreover, in contrast to what he had earned in agriculture — typically about $25,000 a year — Manuel was able to earn $60,000 to $80,000 a year in construction.
It’s difficult enough to stop identity theft and virtually impossible to stop it when the person voluntarily lends his identity to somebody else.
The second reason E-Verify fails is that states don’t enforce their mandates. In 2017, only 45 percent to 53 percent of all new hires in Mississippi were run through the E-Verify system despite the universal mandate (some data sources report slightly different numbers). The majority of the plants raided actually used E-Verify, including the Peco Foods plant in Bay Springs that stated that it “adheres strongly to all local, state and federal laws.” Mississippi’s E-Verify compliance rates are the lowest of all states with mandates, but its compliance rates aren’t too dissimilar from other states with mandates. If Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina won’t enforce their own E-Verify mandates on the state level, there’s no hope that the federal government will do a better job nationwide.
The cynical public choice-influenced economist in me thinks that E-Verify is popular among immigration restrictionist politicians because it doesn’t work but it makes the politician look like a tough enforcer. Thus, many will get the political benefits of being an immigration restrictionist without forcing their districts to pay a heavy economic cost.
After all, very few interior immigration enforcement methods will be effective, so they might as well pick the ones that don’t impose enormous costs on valued constituents. That probably explains why only a handful of businesses were shut down in Arizona despite the legal authority to do so, and they were all bankrupt anyway. Essentially, the I-9 program and E-Verify incentivize illegal immigrants to use other identities to get valuable jobs. If there was no I-9 or E-Verify requirement then the demand for fake identities among illegal immigrants could collapse and the black market in documents would crater.
Although the evidence is slim, one of the potential ways in which E-Verify might lower the cost of enforcement is by helping ICE conduct worksite and I-9 audits from a distance. If that’s true, and that’s a mighty big if, that is a slim benefit compared to the silver bullet program that was supposed to turn off the wage magnet attracting illegal immigrants.
E-Verify Doesn’t Work — Now What?
There are a couple of ways to make E-Verify less of a total failure. The first is to attach biometrics to it, such as linking state driver’s license pictures to the federal identity database and forcing employers to check those at the point of hire. Arizona, Maryland, Wyoming, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Mississippi, Florida, Idaho, Iowa and Nebraska are already participating in the RIDE initiative that links state photo identification to federal databases accessed by E-Verify. This increases employer responsibility and opens them up to a wide variety of lawsuits over workplace discrimination. Furthermore, it only works if the worker is using an identity with a driver’s license or other state photo identity.
The second way to make E-Verify less likely to fail is to link it with some form of a national identity card that likely includes biometric information like fingerprints. Everybody in the United States would have to be issued one of these and present them at the point of hire in order to exclude illegal immigrants from employment. Many immigration restrictions like Dan Stein of the Federation of American Immigration Reform already favor a national biometric identity card, but their goal is much easier to politically achieve if half-way measures like E-Verify are fully mandated and fail.
When President Ronald Reagan’s first attorney general, William French Smith, argued for a national ID card to limit illegal immigration, the president reportedly scoffed, “Maybe we should just brand all the babies.” The prospect of a national ID card that includes our individual biometric data is terrifying. Nothing good will come from such a system, but plenty of bad things could happen as a result of it. It’s best to oppose E-Verify now rather than see it fail in a nationwide mandate and then be replaced by a national biometric identity card. Immigration restrictionists should go back to the drawing board and come up with something that works.
Reducing Illegal Immigration
The only way to reliably reduce the incentive of some employers to hire illegal immigrants is to allow more immigrants to work legally in the United States, either temporarily on guest-worker visas or permanently on green cards. The government has dramatically increased the number of H-2 visas for temporary workers from Mexico while the number of Mexicans crossing the border illegally has collapsed — probably because they can now enter legally.
Since the big expansion in H-2 visas around the Great Recession, the stock of Mexican workers in the United States has continually fallen as some of those who leave are replaced by legal workers. Reforming H-2 visas so migrants can work in year-round occupations such as meatpacking and dairy, as well as expanding H-2 opportunity to people in other countries will further reduce the flow of illegal immigrants and, eventually, their stock.
More visas reduced Mexican illegal immigration in the 1950s and early 1960s and they’ve been doing so for almost 20 years. It’s time to bring back a proven system for reducing illegal immigration and ignore quick-fix technological schemes like E-Verify that overpromise, underdeliver and require other expensive policy reforms to become marginally effective.
The raids in Mississippi show that E-Verify is a weak and failed program. If E-Verify lived up to its expectations, those workers would never have been employed in Mississippi in the first place. Immigration restrictionists might complain that the E-Verify laws weren’t well-enforced, but that’s silly, as illegal immigrants are here working because the immigration laws aren’t well-enforced either. The current version of those laws can’t be well-enforced without doing significant economic damage and violating the civil liberties of tens of millions of people. Expecting E-Verify to enforce itself and eliminate the incentive to work here illegally is the triumph of wishful thinking over reality. As the Mississippi raids show, immigration restrictionists need to ditch E-Verify and go back to the drawing board if they aren’t going to embrace liberalized legal migration. At a very minimum, E-Verify’s biggest supporters should acknowledge the failure of their program in Mississippi.
Alex Nowrasteh is the director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.