Viewpoints : Reforming Immigration Reform

When Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, detractors claimed that, because it imposed sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers, the new law would result in discrimination against Latinos, Asians and other minority groups, even those who are here legally.

Last March, the government’s watchdog arm, the General Accounting Office, confirmed that in many cases employers turned away job applicants who appeared foreign, fearing prosecution under the act.

That study, along with others, has led to a move on Capitol Hill to repeal or reform the portion of the law dealing with employer sanctions. For a discussion on the merits of such changes, Sharon Bernstein interviewed Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.), a sponsor of the act who opposes repeal and reform, and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), who favor change.

Does the act cause discrimination in hiring?


Cranston: Yes, employer sanctions do result in job discrimination. The GAO study said the sanction provisions have resulted in widespread discrimination attributable solely to sanctions. By GAO’s admission, the numbers are conservative. According to the study, 891,000 employers, or 19% of the surveyed population, admit to beginning discriminatory practices because of this law. Ten percent of those employers, or 461,000, admit to discriminating on the basis of national origin by either not considering hiring someone who is perceived as being foreign or by only asking persons perceived as being foreign for documentation of citizenship or authorization to work in this country.

Roybal: There is a large group of employers who won’t interview anyone who has a Spanish surname. There is another group that continues to exploit workers by hiring people who are illegal and paying them substandard wages. The act did not stop the exploitation, and it did not stop people from coming into the United States. What it has done is set up a large group of employers who will not hire anyone with a Spanish surname because they don’t want to get involved.

Simpson: The purpose of the law was to provide that there was discrimination--discrimination against those who were illegal. The GAO came out with this report saying they found 19% discrimination among almost 4.5 million employers, but half of that was discrimination based on alienage, which has nothing to do with whether you look or sound foreign. That is discrimination based on an employer who says, “I only hire U.S. citizens, I do not hire Brits; or, I do not hire Canadians or people from Zambia.”

That left about 10%, and half of that was based on employer confusion with the documents. That left 5% of the total who were people who may have been discriminated against because they looked or sounded foreign. They couldn’t tell us in that 5% how many, if they were discriminated against, didn’t get the job. And that of course was the ultimate issue.

If there is illegal discrimination, how can it be eliminated?

Simpson: We need to educate employers more as to what is happening. We need a better verification system. We need new things. There aren’t some here who like to discriminate and some who don’t; that’s absurd.

Roybal: One solution of course is to repeal the sanctions provision. Other solutions that may be more realistic would be to impose new guidelines that would have to be followed by all employers with regard to the hiring of people with Spanish surnames so that all individuals are interviewed on an equal basis. The guidelines would be like those defining people who qualify for Social Security. The employer would get information on who he can hire under what circumstances.

Should the employer sanctions provisions of the law be repealed?

Cranston: The best solution--in fact the only real solution--is out-and-out repeal of the employer sanctions program. It just hasn’t worked.

First of all, there’s no public policy justification for causing national origin discrimination against U.S. citizens and other persons who are in this country legally.

Second, the jury is still out as to whether sanctions are in fact deterring illegal immigration. A recent report issued by the RAND Corp. and the Urban Institute says, “None of our data sets provide conclusive evidence that employer sanctions have or have not reduced undocumented immigration.”

Simpson: The GAO report said that the bill, which was designed to stem the flow of illegal immigration, is working. And if it’s working, it’s working because of its internal mechanisms, and the biggest internal mechanism is employer sanctions.

Why not reform the sanctions provision, without repealing it?

Cranston: I favor repeal over reform because I don’t think sanctions are working to stem immigration, nor do I think they’re working to stop exploitation of undocumented workers in sweatshops.

With respect to reform, I’m terribly disappointed with the reform proposals that are on the table. An I.D. card is incompatible with our notion of a free society.

Beefing up anti-discrimination provisions and public education provisions are very good ideas, but they are about three years too late. I cannot imagine that this will do anything more than be a Band-Aid on a hemorrhage.

Roybal: Those employers who are discriminating won’t follow the guidelines anyway. It’s not going to solve the problem; it’s going to perpetuate the problem.

What would eliminating sanctions do?

Roybal: If you eliminate the danger of sanctions, employers in general will be more open-minded to interview anyone who comes to their offices.

Where should immigration policy go from here?

Cranston: We have some options. Apart from repealing the sanctions, we should beef up the border patrol, we should put money and personnel into our apprehension efforts at the border, but we should also make sure that the patrol is properly maintained and trained and that our efforts are legal. Also, we should very vigorously enforce labor laws against the sweatshop owners and others who are hiring undocumented workers and exploiting them. And let’s increase penalties for persons harboring and smuggling in undocumented people.

Simpson: The people who want to repeal employer sanctions are the same people exactly who never wanted the bill. They say, “Well, we need more law enforcement.” I say, “What do you want, fences? Military at the border?” Well, no, they don’t.

If there are to be no sanctions, what should happen when a person goes to get a job? What should our policy be regarding businesses?

Roybal: We should continue the practice we have been using for generations. When you get a job, you give your Social Security number. If you don’t have that, you have a card from the government saying that you’re here legally.

Cranston: If we are going to expend our resources efficiently or logically, we shouldn’t go after employers who have no history or record of engaging in illegal activity. We shouldn’t go after small employers who don’t have the legal counsel or the financial resources to comply with the onerous paper work requirements of the act.

Some of the small employers who do discriminate are just doing it out of a sense of hopelessness or helplessness. They’re afraid they’re going to be charged with breaking the law if they don’t bend over backwards to obey the law. And that leads to discrimination.

What would be the economic impact of repealing sanctions?

Roybal: I think it would fuel the economy because these people coming in are not just professional people, but they are rank-and-file people who work in industry. You wouldn’t see as many vacancy signs at fast-food places, for example. We would not find the situation that we have in downtown Los Angeles that they want people for the clothing industry.

These are jobs that (immigrants) want to be doing. And if we put a stop to sanctions, these people could all be working. These people pay sales tax; they buy products. These people could be good citizens and help build the economy just like immigrants who came in the past and helped build the United States.