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Bishop Wester: Immigration enforcement

Published July 8, 2011 1:01 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

As our nation continues to debate immigration reform — without real results — the issue of effective enforcement of the law has reached a fever pitch. In a time of fiscal austerity, immigration budgets continue to reach record levels.

Billions of dollars have been spent on detention centers, barriers, a border fence and other enforcement initiatives which have not solved the problem of a broken immigration system.

There is no disagreement that effective enforcement of the law should be a central component of our national immigration policy. Indeed, the Catholic Church believes that enforcement of our immigration laws is a vital component of any workable immigration system.

The question is how this enforcement is implemented, as sound and humane public policy should protect the God-given dignity of the human person, regardless of their legal status. The church believes, and urges policymakers to be mindful of the fact, that immigration is ultimately about human beings, the large majority of whom share American values — love of family, hard work and the worship of God.

Yet another immigration enforcement initiative being considered in Congress is the expansion of the electronic employment verification system known as E-Verify, making it mandatory for all employers nationwide. This program, now a voluntary one, checks Social Security numbers against federal databases, ensuring that potential employees have legal authorization to work in the United States.

Supporters of this proposal believe that mandating the system would help ensure that all workers hired in the United States are legally entitled to work here. This sounds like — and under the right circumstances may well be — a necessary policy, as all persons working in the United States should be work-authorized and employers held accountable.

However, implementation of a mandatory "E-Verify" system by itself, particularly as the system currently is constituted, would ultimately fail. Undocumented workers — about 8 million workers and 5 percent of the national workforce — would resort to working off the books in the underground economy unless implementation of such a system is accompanied by a plan to include them.

Moreover, flaws in the system, including inaccurate federal databases and the lack of an effective process for workers to correct those inaccuracies, could threaten the jobs of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens. And, because the program currently fails to detect some 54 percent of undocumented workers entered into the system, it will not solve the very issue it purports to address.

The most prudent approach, of course, is to consider any changes in the implementation of the E-Verify system in a comprehensive immigration reform bill. President Obama agrees, as he noted in a recent press conference and has stated in his blueprint for immigration reform.

What would a revamped, reformed, and more error-free verification system be able to achieve within the context of comprehensive immigration reform?

By ensuring that all workers have legal status and are on a level playing field, it could help guarantee a reliable supply of low-skilled legal workers for vital industries that help make our economy churn, prevent wages from being undercut by an underground cash economy, and ensure that the rights of U.S. workers are not violated by unscrupulous employers.

Oh yes, such a solution also would protect the basic dignity of the human person by keeping U.S.-based immigrant families together as members of our communities.

Absent other reforms to our failed immigration system, a mandatory E-Verify system might change the rules of the workplace, but not how it would meet the law of supply and demand. Business groups, who most understand the nation's labor needs, should agree and should carry this message to their elected officials in state capitals and on Capitol Hill.

The U.S. bishops support the right of our government to enforce the law and control our borders, but leadership requires that laws be recast when they are ineffective and inhumane.

Enforcement efforts alone, pursued by our government for several decades, have not solved the problem of illegal immigration or addressed the underlying problem of a broken immigration system. Instead, they have separated U.S.-citizen families and driven entire immigrant communities underground, to the detriment of us all.

Over the next few months, elected officials in Congress on both sides of the aisle would be wise to acknowledge this fact and begin the hard work of negotiating a bipartisan immigration compromise. Until then, we will continue to see proposals that do not provide real solutions.

Rev. John C. Wester is the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City and a consultant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.