Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a sweeping illegal-immigration bill. It addresses smuggling, fake IDs, and more. But its centerpiece is E-Verify, an online tool that makes it hard for illegal aliens to get hired. House Republicans are also trying to pass a bill that includes an E-Verify mandate.
If you aren’t for E-Verify, you aren’t serious about controlling immigration. Building a wall can only get you so far in controlling illegal immigration. The same goes for hiring Border Patrol agents, prosecuting border-jumpers, and tightening asylum rules. All these measures are important—but if illegal aliens are home-free once they get past the border, then walls, moats, and alligators won’t stop them from trying. And if enough keep trying, many will succeed. After all, the border with Mexico is nearly 2,000 miles long, and while Border Patrol agents do admirable work, they aren’t supermen.
Unfortunately, for too many politicians on the right, even among those striking populist poses, the border is where their immigration hawkishness stops.
Not coincidentally, this aligns with the interests of many employers, who want as loose a labor market as they can manage. Having multiple workers chasing each job allows bosses to keep wages low and avoid the recruitment efforts they would have to undertake in a tighter labor market. That’s why the universal use of E-Verify in hiring is essential, both as a policy matter and as a political litmus test.
Real immigration control requires making it as difficult as possible to live here illegally, to reduce the incentives for those who would cross the border illegally or overstay their visas. And the chief way to do that is to make it hard to get a job. The harder it is, the fewer people will come illegally.
That’s where E-Verify comes in.
E-Verify is a free online system run by the Department of Homeland Security that employers can use to check whether new hires are permitted to work in the United States. When an employer collects the usual information for tax and Social Security purposes, he also submits it to E-Verify. The response comes in a matter of seconds.
And it works. That’s why many businesses that might otherwise attract illegal workers—fast food, for instance—have stickers on their doors advertising that they use E-Verify. It’s a signal to illegal job-seekers that they should apply elsewhere. The co-author of a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas reported that “E-Verify, when it’s mandatory and all employers have to use it, can have very large deterrent effects on the employment of undocumented immigrants and possibly also on the immigration of undocumented immigrants.”
Note the reference to “mandatory.” E-Verify is required for all new hires in four states and for some portion of the workforce in 16 others, and for federal agencies and contractors nationwide. About half of new hires are screened through E-Verify, but until the other half are, as well, any future administration that reverses President Biden’s irresponsible border policies will still have a hard time controlling illegal immigration. Border enforcement is incomplete without universal E-Verify.
The need for verification of legal status for employment isn’t a new idea. The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy more than 40 years ago recommended that hiring an unauthorized worker be made illegal. Until the commission’s recommendations were enacted in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, it was explicitly legal to employ illegal aliens (under a loophole called the Texas Proviso). The enactment of what in shorthand are called “employer sanctions” was part of the grand bargain of the 1986 bill, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which in return amnestied nearly 3 million illegal aliens.
Subsequent political efforts by an alliance of employers and ethnic pressure groups made sure that the amnesty went forward, but that the hiring ban was seldom enforced. To give just one example: Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jerry Kammer, in his 2020 book Losing Control (published by my organization), tells of an incident in the mid-’90s when Republican congressman Henry Bonilla got wind of an upcoming immigration raid on a cafeteria in his San Antonio, Texas, district. The lawmaker called the local Immigration and Naturalization Service chief and asked him to back off, only to be politely rebuffed. A few minutes later, the INS official got a call from the Clinton Justice Department in Washington ordering him to cancel the raid.
But even without such efforts, the ban on hiring illegal aliens was vulnerable to identity fraud, because it was enforced merely through the presentation of paper documents, which employers were neither inclined nor trained to assess. There had been pilot programs for telephonic verification of the information presented by a new hire, but they went nowhere.
Then came another presidential commission on the issue, the bipartisan US Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by civil-rights icon Barbara Jordan. Its report, issued in the mid-’90s, stated, “The most promising option for secure, nondiscriminatory verification is a computerized registry using data provided by the Social Security Administration and the INS.”
This is what eventually became E-Verify. But when E-Verify was released in its current form at the end of the Bush administration, it was still voluntary. Then Arizona enacted a state-specific requirement, and the US Chamber of Commerce sued to quash it. In 2011, the case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that states (and even localities) are within their rights to mandate use of E-Verify as a condition of receiving a business license.
The Chamber of Commerce reluctantly flipped and embraced the E-Verify mandate proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in order to pre-empt a multiplicity of state and local rules and to ensure a single national standard. That legislation was approved in committee but went no further in the Republican House, due to opposition from agricultural interests.
In the decade-plus since, no progress has been made at the federal level. Farm lobbyists will agree to E-Verify only if they have no-strings access to unlimited foreign-visa workers. The left will agree to the mandate only when every single illegal alien is legalized and there is effectively unlimited immigration, so that every potential worker would be legal by definition.
President Donald Trump was weak on E-Verify. While a 2018 congressional immigration package his administration supported included a mandate, the following year he backed away, complaining that it made it too hard to hire staff and requesting a cut in funding for the program; his current campaign website makes no mention of it.
House Republicans have included an E-Verify mandate in their current immigration package, H.R. 2, but are again meeting resistance in their own caucus from members attuned to the interests of the farm lobby. With Democrats controlling the Senate, there is little chance of any House immigration bill becoming law in this Congress, but the Republican leadership’s success—or lack thereof—in getting some kind of meaningful E-Verify mandate passed will be an indication of how beholden the GOP still is to employer interests.
There has been further action in the states, however. Even before he was endorsed by Trump, DeSantis was gaining traction in his primary bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2018 by calling for an E-Verify mandate against an opponent who was almost a parody of a pro-illegal-immigration agricultural baron.
In DeSantis’s first term as governor, opposition from members of his own party in the legislature forced DeSantis to settle for a more limited mandate, which applied only to state agencies and contractors. In his successful re-election campaign, he ran on E-Verify again, and again faced establishment Republican opposition, but he has succeeded in moving the ball forward, expanding the mandate to all employers of more than 25 people.
E-Verify won’t solve the immigration problem on its own. Any mandate would require ongoing enforcement to ensure compliance, document fraud will forever be a problem, and a large share of the illegal workforce, perhaps 40 percent or 45 percent, works off the books for cash and thus beyond the reach of the system.
But while there are no silver bullets, E-Verify remains the single most important step in reasserting control over immigration. Any politician who doesn’t come out clearly and unequivocally in support of universal E-Verify can’t honestly claim to support immigration control.