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Breaking The Immigration Deadlock

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Breaking the immigration deadlock

By Jared Bernstein and Ross Eisenbrey 

The quest for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) appears to be stymied by anti-immigrant forces. The Senate bill, which for a moment appeared to rise from the ashes, looks to be back in a heap, as support is fading among key players on both sides of the aisle.
The fact that such a failure would leave us stuck with our dysfunctional immigration system should be motivation enough to keep the bill alive. We have an idea that we think might help. Break CIR into two separate legislative initiatives: the first part builds a system of employee identification, and the second part implements earned amnesty.
Let’s go back to first principles: the problem isn’t immigration. It’s illegal immigration. We are a nation of immigrants, but we are not a nation of undocumented workers, living in the shadows, serving the underground economy, and prevented from integrating into the mainstream.
There are various ways to stop illegal flows: open the borders, build up the economies’ of sending countries to lower the wage advantage associated with migration, or build a system that identifies undocumented persons in the workplace (a wall won’t work and sends exactly the wrong, isolationist message to the rest of the world). No advanced economy would endorse open borders, the wage differential between here and say, Mexico, won’t be closing anytime soon, so we’re left with option three.
Without this piece, there can be no reform. We learned that back in 1986, the last round of comprehensive reform, which foundered on precisely this shortcoming. Today’s opponents of CIR have a point when they reference the failure of the ’86 law to stem illegal flows. But back then, we had neither the will, nor more importantly, the technology, to implement a workable identification system.
The key to such a system is that it can’t rely on employers to determine the status of the workers they hire. They lack the incentives and the resources to determine whether work authorization documents are forged.
An effective ID plan starts with all job seekers applying to the government for work authorization. Once their status is verified, they would be given an identity card and number to present to prospective employers. The employer’s role would be limited to receiving verification from the federal government that the job applicant’s number corresponds to an authorized employee with the same name, gender, and age. A reliable ID system should also reduce the incidence of employers mistakenly avoiding legal workers because the employer is worried about running afoul of immigration laws.
One critique of our strategy might be that we can’t be sure that those who support round one will support the more welcoming legislation in round two. True, anti-immigrant politicians won’t support CIR under any circumstances, so yes, they’ll vote for the identification system and against a citizenship path. But these hardcore opponents were always out of reach, and they’re not our target. The futile attempt to win them over has led CIR proponents to water down the legalization program to the point where it may well be useless to those workers who most need it. The folks we’re trying to reach are those decisive votes in the middle of this debate who want to reform the system in a pragmatic way that has a chance of actually working.
In fact, once the ID system is in place—and we grant that this could take a few years—opponents of part two will look pretty bad to the majority of Americans who support comprehensive reform but oppose illegal immigration.
The two most urgent reasons for reform are to bring those already here into the mainstream and to stop the dangerous and corrosive illegal flows. Unfortunately, the political system won’t move on the former until we achieve the latter. If we create a secure authorization system today, earned amnesty will be achievable down the road, hopefully not too far. If not, we may never get there.

Jared Bernstein is senior economist at and Ross Eisenbrey is vice president and policy director of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC.


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