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Illegal Alien Law Is Here to Stay

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A badly flawed government study was used by NAACP leaders last week as the excuse for joining militant Latinos and others in a campaign to be nicer to companies that use illegal aliens as a source of cheap, exploitable labor.

The convention of the black civil rights group voted to ask Congress to get rid of a provision in the 1986 immigration reform act that imposed stiff penalties on companies that knowingly hire foreigners who are here illegally.

The decision to switch sides and oppose employer sanctions was a good-will move by a few important black leaders toward Latino activists who have dragged their feet in the push for badly needed civil rights legislation to mitigate recent Supreme Court rulings against affirmative action.

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The Latinos want more attention paid to the problems of illegals, and, as one Latino group official put it bluntly, Latinos no longer intend to let black Americans set the civil rights agenda.

So a few weeks ago NAACP Executive Secretary Benjamin Hooks promised some Latin groups that he would get the NAACP to end its support of employer sanctions.

Hooks pushed the new policy through despite strong opposition from those who know that the availability of hard-pressed illegal aliens often depresses wages of other workers, especially low-income blacks.

It was a victory for the militant Latinos and for Hooks’ effort to improve relations between them and black leaders. But it was no more than a gesture because Congress isn’t about to eliminate employer sanctions.

Unfortunately, to win the convention debate, Hooks relied on a recent government report that is also being used extensively by other opponents of the law, which for the first time in U.S. history provides for punishment of employers who exploit illegal aliens.

Hooks cited a General Accounting Office study that said the immigration law has caused “widespread discrimination” against Latino workers by employers who worry about mistakenly hiring a foreign-looking worker.

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Since the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People has been fighting discrimination for decades, the point was persuasive. However, Hooks didn’t mention the withering criticism of the GAO report, particularly a written analysis by Eleanor Chelimsky, the GAO’s own assistant comptroller general for program evaluation and methodology.

Chelimsky analyzed her agency’s report before it was released and declared flatly that its data didn’t support the assertion that the law caused “widespread discrimination.”

She noted that there were no figures to compare discrimination before and after the law, and “since discrimination has always been with us,” there was no way for the GAO to conclude that the law has caused a rise in discrimination.

The data was at best inconclusive and contradictory, Chelimsky wrote. She urged Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher not to issue the report as drafted.

Nevertheless, the report was issued a few days later without any more surveys of workers or employers. Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) said the final report “merely softened the vigor of its statements linking employer sanctions to the discrimination it measured.”

Lowell Dodge, the GAO’s director of administration of justice issues and a key player in developing the report, concedes that its conclusion was a “judgment call” based on the available data, and not on “conclusive evidence.”

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He does believe that the law has increased the incidence of discrimination but concedes, “We could not quantify the amount because we did not have a base line to compare discrimination before and after the law passed.”

Also, Dodge said, “the evidence suggests this discrimination is related more to employer confusion about the law than to their fear of sanctions.”

In other words, unlike the Latino activists and now the NAACP, the GAO is not calling for an end to employer sanctions; instead it is sensibly urging simplification of the process employers use to verify the legal status of all workers.

Since workers can use any two of 17 easily forged forms of identification to show they are here legally, some employers find the verification process confusing.

Several high-level studies are being conducted by Congress, the Justice Department, the General Accounting Office and others to find a simple, non-intrusive way for all workers to quickly show their eligibility for work.

The NAACP also ignored the decades of furious debate that produced the 1986 immigration reform. It was a splendid compromise. In return for employer sanctions, Congress set up the most extensive amnesty program ever extended to illegal aliens in any country. It is wisely giving legal status to about 2.5 million illegal aliens.

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One of the major goals of the reform was to slow the flood of foreigners who were pouring into the United States without permission at an ever-increasing rate. The Urban Institute, which works with the GAO, estimated last week that illegal U.S. entries have been reduced by about 25% since the law was passed, although the rate is rising somewhat.

The law will not entirely stop foreigners from coming here illegally. The prospect of getting U.S. jobs that pay far more than they can earn in their own countries is a powerful magnet.

But their numbers have been reduced and can be cut more if the hunger too many companies have for cheap, undocumented labor is curbed by the threat of penalties against the companies. While a couple of unions trying to organize illegals have joined the campaign against punishing employers who hire them, the 14-million-member AFL-CIO warns that ending sanctions would be “an open invitation to unscrupulous employers” to step up the hiring of undocumented workers.

The law needs to be improved by simplifying the worker eligibility system and strengthening the anti-discrimination provisions.

But one of the dumbest things Congress could do would be to tell employers that it’s OK to hire those underpaid, easily abused illegals to compete with workers here. While it makes many mistakes, Congress doesn’t seem ready to make that one.

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