WASHINGTON -- Even in a deeply polarized political age, there are policies that ought to lend themselves to easy bipartisan alliances. The most conservative Republicans and the most liberal Democrats should be able to agree on a few things: support free contraceptives to lower the abortion rate; support medical malpractice reform that also exposes inept doctors; and require businesses to use a national computer system to verify the legal status of employees. That would dramatically curb illegal immigration.
When those areas of common-sense compromise fail, you have to figure that somebody doesn't really want a solution. So what's keeping Congress from passing a bill to require all businesses to use e-Verify, a kind of instant background check run by the Department of Homeland Security?
For all the posturing over illegal immigration -- the criticism of birthright citizenship, the insistence on a problem-plagued, multibillion-dollar fence, the Arizona law that recalls apartheid -- dramatically slowing the stream of undocumented workers would not be difficult. Illegal border-crossers, whether from Colombia or China, usually come here for better economic opportunity. That's read as "jobs." If they couldn't get jobs, many wouldn't come. They'd get word from family and friends that the hiring spigot has dried up.
Most members of Congress know that. But there has been an implicit bipartisan consensus not to require businesses to use e-Verify, a free computerized system that works much like those instant background checks for in-store credit cards. It's simple, it's fast, and, with a negligible error rate, it's reliable.
While some businesses use it, many do not. And they won't unless Congress requires it, complete with daunting penalties for those businesses that insist on illegal hiring.
Many congressional liberals haven't supported e-Verify because they don't want to make it harder for illegal workers to get jobs. And guess what? Many congressional conservatives don't, either. They know that business depends on illegal labor.
It doesn't seem to matter that the most fevered demands to deport illegal workers and seal the borders come from conservative voters. Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., play to those demands by posturing -- calling for a militarized southern border, insisting on a fence that deters no one, shutting illegal immigrants out of college. Mexican and Guatemalan laborers are safer political targets than upper-middle-class business executives.
No matter how harsh the rhetoric around illegal immigration, illegal hiring rarely comes in for serious scrutiny. Republican Meg Whitman, who spent millions of dollars losing the race for governor of California, was at least penalized with public approbation after she was forced to admit that she had hired an illegal domestic worker. Most employers who flout the law do so with the knowledge that they will not pay a price.
Just last month, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee exposed their hypocrisy on illegal immigration. Led by committee chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, they announced plans to hold hearings demanding that President Obama return to a failed scheme used by his predecessor: workplace raids that punish illegal immigrants but leave their employers largely unscathed.
The president's rate of deportation is far higher than his predecessor's, but Obama has also aggressively targeted employers. Employers were fined $6.9 million in fiscal 2010, up from $675,000 in 2008, according to the Los Angeles Times. It seems the GOP wants to shield law-breaking business executives.
Why let the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies get away with exploiting illegal immigrants? A law that aggressively cracks down on illegal hiring is the best hope for pushing comprehensive immigration reform through Congress; it would force the business lobby to acknowledge the importance of immigrant labor.
That's why those who want to put illegal immigrants on a path to legal status ought to rally around a proposal by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; it would require all businesses to use e-Verify and face consequences for failure to do so. He has drawn some support from unsavory quarters, such as an anti-immigration group called NumbersUSA. Still, e-Verify might accomplish what years of activism has not -- opening a path toward immigration reform.