HAVING FAILED at comprehensive immigration reform, the Bush administration is on its way to failing at piecemeal immigration reform. Its new get-tough approach, unveiled in the summer, aims to deter unlawful entry to the country by forcing employers to fire illegal immigrants on their payrolls. The policy is a prescription for social, economic and bureaucratic mayhem masquerading as muscular enforcement. No wonder it has succeeded in uniting labor, business and civil rights groups in opposition to it.
At the heart of the administration's new strategy is a plan to use government data to identify undocumented workers who have provided their employers with fraudulent Social Security numbers to qualify for a job. On identifying these "no-match" employees, the government would alert employers, who would then have 90 days either to fire the workers in question or face hefty fines.
Simple, right? Wrong. For starters, the Social Security Administration's database is riddled with errors -- mistakes, misspellings, hyphenated names wrongly entered and so forth. According to the agency's own inspector general, these errors could affect 17.8 million records. That raises the probability of bureaucratic confusion on an epic scale. In targeting illegal immigrants, the government's dragnet is likely to sweep up huge numbers of citizens, both native-born and legal immigrants. Would employers facing large fines really fight to keep workers -- even perfectly legal ones -- whose documents were marred by a discrepancy?
No doubt, many undocumented workers might be culled in such a cruel campaign. Some might even decide to leave the country. But many others would simply burrow more deeply into the underground economy, working as day laborers or for mom-and-pop employers under the government's radar. The effect on employers in the agriculture, meatpacking, construction and hospitality industries could be devastating. Farmers would be particularly hard hit: At least 70 percent of farmworkers in this country are thought to be undocumented. The government is not denying that its plan would cause confusion and dislocations; it's just saying that's too bad.
In response to a lawsuit by unions and the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal court in San Francisco has put the government's new rules on hold; a ruling is expected soon. The government has a right to enforce laws. But let there be no illusions about the costs. President Bush himself argued for comprehensive immigration reform because he knew -- and his own aides acknowledged -- that a crackdown without a path to citizenship for some 12 million illegal immigrants already here was a recipe for chaos. If the administration is determined to squeeze employers, it might make some sense to start with hiring. Launching an attack on millions of hardworking people already in the labor force is foolish in the extreme.