Thursday, August 1, 2013


WSJ Op-Ed on immigration, with extra comments.  Original here.

Think Government Is Intrusive Now? Wait Until E-Verify Kicks In

Source: Wall Street Journal
Massive border security and E-Verify are central provisions of the Senate immigration bill, and they are supported by many in the House. Both provisions signal how wrong-headed much of the immigration-reform effort has become.

E-Verify is the real monster. If this part of the bill passes, all employers will be forced to use the government-run, Web-based system that checks potential employees' immigration status. That means, every American will have to obtain the federal government's prior approval in order to earn a living.

E-Verify might seem harmless now, but missions always creep and bureaucracies expand. Suppose that someone convicted of viewing child pornography is found teaching. There's a media hoopla. The government has this pre-employment check system. Surely we should link E-Verify to the criminal records of pedophiles? And why not all criminal records? We don't want alcoholic airline pilots, disbarred doctors, fraudster bankers and so on sneaking through.

Next, E-Verify will be attractive as a way to enforce hundreds of other employment laws and regulations. In the age of big data, the government can easily E-Verify age, union membership, education, employment history, and whether you've paid income taxes and signed up for health insurance.

The members of licensed occupations will love such low-cost enforcement of their cartels: We can't let unlicensed manicurists prey on unsuspecting customers, can we? E-Verify them! And while the government screens employee applications, they can also check on employers' compliance with all sorts of regulations by looking at the job applications they submit for verification.

E-Verify proponents imagine some world in which a super-accurate government database tracks each person's legal status, and automatically enforces straightforward rules. Maybe on Mars. In our world, immigration and employment law is a complex mess, and our government's website-building capacity (see under: "health-insurance exchanges") can't possibly handle millions of people who are trying to evade the law. Permission to work inevitably will rely at least in part on the judgment calls of an army of bureaucrats.

Political abuse is just as inevitable. Consider Catherine Engelbrecht, reportedly harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all for starting a tea-party group. But the E-Verify bureaucrats would never cause her trouble in getting a job or hiring someone, right?

Soon, attending a meeting of a group that is a bit too enthusiastic about the Constitution or gun rights—or being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally—could well set off a "check this person" when he applies for a job. If the government can stop you from working, how can you be free to speak out in opposition?

It's the need for prior permission rather than ex-post prosecution that makes E-Verify so dangerous. A simple delay in processing or resolving an "error" in your data is just as effective as outright denial, cheap to do, and easy to cover up.

Every tyranny silences opponents by controlling their ability to earn a living. How is it that so many supposedly freedom-loving, small-government Republicans want to arm our nation's politicized bureaucracy—fresh from the scandals at the IRS and elsewhere—with the power to do just that? Why are we so afraid of immigrants that we would jeopardize this most basic guarantee of our political liberties?

Many opponents of immigration worry that immigrants will overuse expensive social services. The fear is misplaced. The Congressional Budget Office estimates more than $100 billion of net fiscal benefit from the limited expansion of immigration that's allowed by the Senate bill. And this fear does not make any sense of the system's preferences for current citizens' family members—who are less likely to work and more likely to consume services—over workers and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps some Republicans worry that immigrants will vote Democratic. But then limiting entrepreneurs and workers makes even less sense. These Republicans should have confidence that their ideas on freedom will attract ambitious, hard-working migrants.

Others say they want to protect the wages of American workers. Like all protectionism, that is demonstrably ineffective. Migrants come for jobs Americans won't or can't do, and businesses build factories abroad if workers can't come here.

The Senate bill promises higher caps for "guest workers." Ponder what "guest worker" really means. Come to America, pick our vegetables, clean our bathrooms and tend our gardens at the invitation of a powerful employer. Pay taxes. And when your visa runs out, go back where you came from—there is no place for you here. This is how Middle East sheikdoms treat Filipino maids and Palestinian construction workers. Is this America?

In the current vision of immigration reform, millions will still be trying to sneak in, and millions more will remain here working illegally. E-Verify and the border security wall prove it. If people could work legally, there would be no need for a system that endangers everyone's liberty to "verify" them. And there would be no need to build a $45-billion monument to imperial decline— our bid to outdo the walls of Hadrian, China and Berlin—to stop them. [Only the ruins won't be pretty enough to attract Chinese tourists a few centuries from now.]

Here is the crucial question for genuine immigration reform: How do we respond when someone says, I have heard of your freedom. I am tired of the corrupt police in my country, the bought-off courts, the oppression of rulers, the tyranny of the religious or ethnic majority. I want to join the one country on earth defined by an idea, not by conquest, religion or ethnic identity. No, I don't have a special skill or a strong back useful to your politically connected employers. I want to come, drive a cab, open a convenience store in a poor neighborhood, work long hours, pay taxes, send my children to school and, eventually, vote.

The answer in the Senate bill and emerging House debate remains: Stay home. America is closed. [The question is, why?]


A few more comments.

Boiled down to one sentence, where this all started. Grumpy reads the news. Reaction: "You guys want every American to have to ask the permission of the Federal Government in order to get a job??? Have you lost your minds? How many founding fathers are rolling over in their graves?"

Space is at a premium in an oped so a lot of fun stuff got cut including the few [] above.

I know there is a serious empirical literature on how much immigrants do or don't affect wages here, and whose wages. Also, I said jobs that Americans "can't or won't do," and any economist should always ask "at what wages."  I had one sentence, so give me a break. (Though, from what I've read, the wages it would take to get Americans to work at a poultry processing plant or pick fruits and vegetables would imply pretty astronomical price increases - or wholesale movements of those industries abroad.)

But... If it raises the welfare of Texans to keep out workers from old Mexico, why does it not make sense for them to keep out workers from New Mexico? National borders have no meaning in economics.

And even if it did work, it would merely be a pure transfer, a zero-sum game. If we want to subsidize wages of some Americans, do we really to tax the wages of poor Mexicans to do it?  Is this America's place in the world, to engineer transfers form poor Mexican migrants to our workers? The tax also shows up on the prices Americans pay, often the same Americans whose wages we're trying to subsidize. A most basic principle of economics is: don't engineer wealth transfers by distorting prices. If you can understand that for ethanol, you can understand that for labor.

The one-sentence shot about moving factories abroad is serious. The studies showing some benefit from keeping out foreign workers typically document short-run effects.  We've been keeping out foreigners for two generations now, and it doesn't seem to have helped the wages of workers who compete with foreigners a lot! People also choose which occupations to enter.

I didn't have room to talk about the 11 million already here. One decent thing in the Senate bill is to recognize that we can't go on like this with 11 million people relegated to second-class status. However, making them wait another 13 years before they can become citizens... Didn't we once have a revolution about "taxation without representation?"

The "guest" worker visas only allow them to work in "qualified" industries and for limited amounts of time. That means e-verify is already set up to check that you're allowed to work in specific industries, and for specific time periods, not the simple in or out you might imagine.

"Soon, attending a meeting of a group that is a bit too enthusiastic about the Constitution or gun rights—or being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally—could well set off a "check this person" when he applies for a job" Besides the grammar getting a bit mangled in the edits, we lost sight of just how plausible this is. Of course "terrorists" shouldn't be allowed to work in the US, right? How many congresspeople would vote against a bill adding "potential terrorists and national security threats" to the e-verify system?  But of course bureacracies' idea of "terrorist" and yours and mine might be a bit different. Mark Steyn (a favorite of mine) is illuminating here
The other day, The Boston Globe ran a story on how the city's police and other agencies had spent months planning a big training exercise for last weekend involving terrorists planting bombs hidden in backpacks left downtown. Unfortunately, the Marathon bombers preempted them, and turned the coppers' hypothetical scenario into bloody reality. What a freaky coincidence, eh? But it's the differences between the simulation and the actual event that are revealing. In humdrum reality, the Boston bombers were Chechen Muslim brothers with ties to incendiary imams and jihadist groups in Dagestan. In the far more exciting Boston Police fantasy, the bombers were a group of right-wing militia men called "Free America Citizens," a name so suspicious (involving as it does the words "free," "America," and "citizens") that it can only have been leaked to them by the IRS. What fun the law enforcement community in Massachusetts had embroidering their hypothetical scenario: The "Free America Citizens" terrorists even had their own little logo – a skull's head with an Uncle Sam hat. Ooh, scary! The Boston PD graphics department certainly knocked themselves out on that.
Do you really want people like this deciding who can work -- and in what industries -- in America? The e-verify system is already connected to homeland security!

The opposite is just as worrisome. The big data miners at the NSA and homeland security will surely be interested to monitor every time a "suspected terrorist" applies for a job, no?

I had a lot more examples of past political persecution in this country.  Historically the left has been persecuted by the government a lot more than the right. The FBI harassed civil rights leaders. Remember the red scare, and the blacklist. Good thing we didn't have e-verify back then.

Henry Miller (also Hoover) had a lovely NRO post on Thursday with detailed accounts of politicized discretion at work in Federal Agencies. Read this and think about how e-verify will work.

The worry that Federal control of employment will  misused is not a new thought. See chapter 1 of Milton Friedman "Capitalism and freedom."

An economic e-verify consequence I didn't have space for: expansion of the underground economy. There will still be millions of people here trying to work illegally. If not, what's the point of e-verify? Many of the 11 million here who won't qualify for the rather strict program to stay, and the slightly looser caps will still leave many shut out.

OK, so there's this much more effective e-verify, you need a job, and your employer needs a worker. What do you do? Answer: go fully illegal. The current system, in which illegal (or maybe I should use the new word "unauthorized." I like that one!) workers can get fake social security numbers and continue semi-legally, paying taxes, paying social security and medicare (on which they will never collect), and enjoying some legal protection, goes down the toilet. Now it's cash under the table.

And once employers get used to cash under the table, why stop with the immigrants? Benefits, health care, taxes, red tape, unions, NLRB, OSHA, it's all getting to be such a pain. Why not pay the Americans cash under the table too?

It's one more step to a two-tier economy, like much of southern Europe. There are a few "good" full time legal jobs with benefits, pensions, etc. And a vast amount of black-market work. Especially for young people, recent migrants (authorized or unauthorized), minorities, and so on.  Even a true-blue libertarian wants work to operate with protections afforded by the legal system -- enforceable contracts and all that. And anyone with a vague soft spot for labor laws including safety, health, worker rights and so on, ought to worry about the consequences of expanding completely illegal labor.

Just because you pass laws against things doesn't mean they stop.

Oh those looser caps. A bureaucracy has to certify that economic conditions are strong enough before more people get let in. The lobbying on that one will be fun to see. Maybe they can import some retired Fed governors. My forecast: labor markets will be strong enough to admit immigrants when there is no American voter who wants a better job, i.e. when hell freezes over.

For a half century, we decried that the Soviet Union controlled who could work where, and ruining the lives of dissenters. We decried that they posted soldiers at the border with guns to stop people from leaving. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Do we really want to set up the system that allows the former. And does it really matter which side of the border has the soldiers with guns? Certainly to the people trying to pass, it matters not one bit.

Thanks without blame to Tom Church at Hoover for a lot of help on facts.

If you're still reading, here's an earlier post with more


Richard Sobel has a nice piece making an important point that I totally missed. E-verify will have to mean a national, biometric identity card. Now, you submit a social security number. What stops people from submitting false names and social security numbers? Hmm need to make sure they are who they say they are...

I also didn't think to point out another danger. Now the Federal government and its Big Data base know every time you apply for a job. Hmm, why is that guy Cochrane applying for a job again? Checking how often you apply for a job will naturally be an important way to check against false social security numbers.