WASHINGTON — As House Republicans searched for waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget, they quickly learned that there isn’t enough dumb spending to put a major dent in the deficit. So they ended up sacrificing some of their own sacred cows, including money to police the borders.
Though conservatives frequently bash President Obama for failing to create a water-tight seal on the country’s southern edge, the tea-party-empowered House majority settled on cuts of around $600 million to border security and immigration enforcement. That’s $350 million less for border fencing and technology, as well as about 870 fewer border patrol agents, according to some estimates.
Those cuts may not withstand final negotiations, since several Democrats have complained about them. But “border security” is about as sensible a place to trim federal spending as any.
That highly-touted fence along the nearly-2000-mile border with Mexico, for example, costs nearly $4 million per mile but is humorously ineffective. A video by a documentary filmmaker shows two American adolescent girls scaling a section of the fence in less than 18 seconds. Obama already quashed a high-tech “virtual” fence that cost a billion but couldn’t distinguish people from plants.
If Congress were composed of rational, level-headed folks, its leaders would immediately point to the folly of wasting money on futile efforts to seal the southern border and instead pass comprehensive immigration reform. That legislation would include a key provision requiring all employers to use e-Verify, a free instant background check that verifies employment status.
If employers were to risk heavy penalties for hiring illegally — penalties that include prison stints — they would stop using illegal labor. And if undocumented workers could not get jobs, most would stop crossing the border. Really. This problem has a reasonably simple solution.
But it’s not going to get fixed because it would require politicians of all stripes — but especially Republicans — to tell Americans, long accustomed to scapegoating illegal immigrants for all manner of things, some hard truths. Few politicians seem willing to do that.
Take Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who is now backpedaling furiously from state legislation that would require most Georgia employers to use e-Verify. The governor, who was an ardent supporter of the mandatory use of e-Verify when he was in Congress, has recently expressed concerns about the accuracy of the system.
Actually, e-Verify is vastly improved over the last year or two, with fewer errors that disqualify legal workers. The Department of Homeland Security has pledged more improvements.
But Deal has been confronted by executives who worry that laws requiring only legal workers will hurt their businesses and damage Georgia’s economy — especially the $68.8 billion agricultural sector. The Georgia Farm Bureau has been among the lobbying groups showing little to no enthusiasm for laws that would crack down on illegal hiring.
And it’s no wonder: According to a 2008 study conducted by the Houston-based Americans for Immigration Reform, Georgia would lose $21.3 billion in economic activity if all its illegal immigrants left the state. Illegal laborers represent about seven percent of the state’s work force, says the Pew Hispanic Center.
But a nation scarred by the recent recession — furious over job losses, beleaguered by continuing debt and foreclosures, uncertain about the future — has cast some of the blame for its economic woes on illegal workers. And the country’s political class has eagerly clamored aboard the demagogue wagon, promising harsh laws to make housing, education and health care impossible for undocumented workers to obtain.
But not jobs. After all, we still need them to clean offices and pluck chickens and pick peaches, even if we won’t admit it.