Thursday, the Senate took a big step forward for the kind of immigration reform that a large majority of Long Island residents say they support. A recent poll by Harstad Strategic Research showed that 80 percent of Long Island residents support the "gang of eight" proposal with its four pillars: border security, employer verification of Social Security numbers, legalization of immigrants here illegally, and new visa guidelines going forward.
As the debate heads into the House of Representatives -- where reform faces even greater hurdles than it did in the Senate -- there undoubtedly will be a renewed focus on how to make enforcement work. The right answer, though it's rarely voiced, is that effective enforcement will require more labor inspectors, not more border agents.
It's tempting for politicians to thump their chests about border security. We saw this in the last-minute Senate amendment to add a $30-billion "border surge" to the immigration bill. Yet, there is more than enough enforcement at the border already. As a report this year from the Migration Policy Institute showed, the United States already spends more on immigration enforcement than on all the other main federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined.
Even a 2,000-mile moat filled with alligators will not solve this. An estimated 11 million immigrants are already in the country illegally; as many as 45 percent of them came across the border legally and then overstayed a visa. No amount of border security is going to be enough by itself.
Meanwhile, there's not nearly enough enforcement ensuring that people who work here have legal authorization to do so. It is, after all, the chance of getting hired that attracts most immigrants to the United States to begin with.
The Senate bill does address one piece of this puzzle: Tamper-proof Social Security cards, and the expansion of E-Verify from a voluntary system to one that is mandatory for all employers, should prevent people without work authorization from using false Social Security numbers to secure employment.
But it doesn't take an evil genius to figure out a way around these tightened processes: Employers could just hire workers off the books. Paying people off the books is, of course, illegal. But does it happen? We know it does.
The good news is that there's no great mystery about how to stop it. Labor departments -- at the state and federal level -- are responsible for enforcing workplace standards. They are the ones who can ensure that employers are paying employees on the books, withholding payroll taxes, and paying into state unemployment insurance and workers' compensation funds.
Unfortunately, as the number of border patrol agents around the country has soared in recent decades, the number of labor inspectors has shrunk -- by 31 percent between 1980 and 2007, even though the labor force grew. At the same time, not coincidentally, the number of people being paid off the books -- both immigrants who lack the proper documentation to work and others -- has dramatically increased. There are now only around 1,000 labor inspectors to cover the entire country.
So, before we get drawn into spending ever-bigger sums to militarize the border, here's a better suggestion for our political leaders. If you care about making enforcement work, let's spend a small fraction of that money replenishing the ranks of the country's labor inspectors.
That would not only prevent people from being hired off the books, it would stop employers from avoiding payroll taxes, build up state unemployment insurance and workers' compensation funds. It would make sure that a minimum floor for labor standards applies to all workers. And it would address the complaint -- commonly heard across Long Island -- about businesses that do the right thing having to compete against others that don't.
David Dyssegaard Kallick is senior fellow of the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank based in Albany and New York City. He directs FPI's Immigration Research Initiative.