Improve guest-worker programs before alien crackdown
The Bush administration has announced steps to increase enforcement of immigration laws.
LACKING comprehensive immigration reform, the Bush administration has chosen to clamp down on illegal workers and their employers with existing laws. The problem is that enforcement will begin in less than 30 days -- before temporary worker programs are revamped to provide a legal alternative for thousands of farms and businesses in need of workers. The economic consequences could be enormous.
Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff made clear in announcing the plans last week that it was taking the actions in frustration of the failure of immigration reform in Congress. An effort to grant legal status to most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants was rejected by the Senate in June.
The key ingredient of the new policy will require employers to obtain valid Social Security information for an employee within 90 days of receiving notice of discrepancies. Some result from mistakes or involve a person who failed to notify the administration of name changes from marriage. If mismatches involve illegal aliens, the employer must fire the worker or face fines of $2,200 for the first offense and up to $10,000 for repeat offenses.
As many as 4 percent of the 250 million wage reports to the agency "show no matches," Chertoff said. Many employers simply throw such reports in the waste basket, but they will do so in the future at their own risk.
The Senate bill included a guest-worker program allowing nonimmigrants to enter the U.S. workforce in temporary jobs. Such programs already exist on a smaller scale than envisioned in the bill.
A nonagricultural guest-worker program, with jobs ranging from tourism to landscaping, is capped at 66,000, but exemptions allowed the total in that category to reach 122,000 last year. Nonimmigrants working at farms or ranches last year numbered 37,000, which farmers say account for only 2 percent of their employees. Those jobs are not capped, but the program has been criticized as cumbersome and expensive.
The new policy "includes making these temporary worker programs workable," Gutierrez said. "Today they're not being used because they are not workable." He said the Labor Department will "analyze them, review them" and enable them "to help business have a legal path to hiring workers and have a legal workforce."
Coordinating changes in the guest-worker programs with the crackdown on hiring of illegal aliens over a long period would be necessary to avoid the economic calamity that many predict. Farmers say 70 percent of their employees are illegal immigrants. "The crisis is that crops will not be harvested," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Immigration authorities reported 742 criminal arrests so far this year, compared with the record of 716 such arrests all of last year. Those numbers could soar as federal authorities train state and local law enforcement officers to help enforce immigration laws, as planned.