Trigger-Happy

Saturday, May 19, 2007

SUPPOSE FOR a moment that the Senate's immigration bill, unveiled Thursday amid great fanfare, becomes law this year. Here's a partial, multibillion-dollar to-do list for the Department of Homeland Security:

· Hire, train and deploy 5,000 to 6,000 additional Border Patrol agents, bringing the total force to 18,000.

· Hire, train and deploy thousands more civilian workers who would begin registering an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country, and provide the technical and logistical capacity to do that, including registration centers, electronic fingerprinting, etc.

· Erect 370 miles of fencing along the Mexican border.

· Develop and implement a comprehensive worker-verification system that would enable employers to quickly check on whether a job applicant is in the country legally.

Oh, and by the way, the deadline for all that would be the end of 2008.

That would be a tall order and a daunting time frame for any government agency, let alone a bureaucratic behemoth such as Homeland Security, which has been beset by organizational inefficiencies from its creation. But according to the Senate immigration bill, meeting all those goals is necessary -- a trigger, in legislative parlance -- for going forward with a major element of the new immigration system that would allow 400,000 to 600,000 temporary workers to enter the country legally each year. In other words, the department's failure to satisfy the legislation's so-called triggers could mean an ongoing influx of illegal immigrants and more deaths in the desert or, if the new fencing is effective, a critical shortage of low-skilled labor in construction, landscaping, hospitality and other industries.

Secretary Michael Chertoff and his aides insist that the department is up to the task. Employers are much less sanguine. They point out that for the employee-verification system to work, there would need to be an unprecedented level of technical cooperation and coordination between U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of DHS, and the Social Security Administration. (The verification system relies on cross-checking Social Security numbers.) A pilot program along those lines has worked reasonably well for the past few years, but a system covering everyone will have to handle 60 million annual inquiries from the country's 7 million or so employers. Brace yourself for the inevitable breakdowns, glitches and bungles, whether the system is ready on time or not.

The triggers make some political sense. There will be enormous pressure for them to be implemented on time so that the temporary-worker program can go forward. But the cost of long delays, which would be the norm in a project of this magnitude, will be high indeed. That possibility should invite scrutiny from

senators.


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