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Unpacking Scott Walker’s Immigration Stance: What Happens to the 11 Million Undocumented Immigrants in America?

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If He Does What He Says, Chaos Would Result

Scott Walker made news yesterday when he tried to clarify his immigration position – for the third time in six weeks.  His sprint to the right and his embrace of the populist opposition to legal immigration led to condemnation by Republican Senators, love from Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (R-AL), breathless support from the faux journalists at Breitbart and a big shout out from Ann Coulter.

But what can we make of his statements regarding unauthorized immigration and immigrants?  What might his tough-sounding soundbites mean when translated into policy?  In other words, what does Scott Walker, a leading contender for the Presidency, have in store for the 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in America?

With respect to unauthorized immigration, Walker had this to say in his interview with Glenn Beck:

“We need to have a much bigger investment from the federal government to secure the border, through not only infrastructure but personnel and certainly technology to do that and to make a major shift. If you don’t do that, there’s much greater issues than just immigration. Folks coming in from potentially ISIS-related elements and others around the world, there’s safety issues from the drugs and drug trafficking and gun trafficking and gun things with regard—but to get to immigration you have got to secure the border, because nothing you do on immigration fundamentally works if you don’t secure that border.”

Walker also discussed the need for interior enforcement and his position that undocumented immigrants must go home and get in the back of the line:

“Then I think you need to enforce the law and the way you effectively do that is to require every employer in America to use an effective E-Verify system and by effective I mean you need to require particularly small businesses and farmers and ranchers. We got to have a system that works, but then the onus is on the employers and the penalties have to be steep that they’re only hiring people who are here, who are legal to be here. No amnesty, if someone wants to be a citizen, they have to go back to their country of origin and get in line behind everybody else who’s waiting.”

Now, let’s try to excavate this word salad.

Border Security First: A Vacuous Excuse for Inaction and a Prescription for the Dysfunctional Status Quo

Walker adopts the position of most Republican candidates when he argues the federal government has to “secure the border first.” This position, articulated in various ways by Walker, Jeb Bush¸ Marco RubioRand Paul and Ted Cruz, may sound serious, but it’s not.  Such a stance means the border will never be deemed secure and comprehensive immigration reform that will lead to a functioning, orderly and modernized legal immigration system will never be the next step. In others words, “secure the border first” is a vacuous excuse for inaction and a prescription for the dysfunctional status quo.

Here’s why. Border security has become so politicized that there is no agreement on what constitutes a secure border or on who should be authorized to make such a judgment. The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee has approved a bill in 2015 that would define operational control as deterring 100% of the entries across a 2,000 mile border – a remarkable and unachievable metric given that the 28 mile long Berlin Wall deterred 95% of attempted crossings.  Back in 2008, GOP Nominee John McCain said we should leave the judgment to border state governors – as if the governors at the time, such as Jan Brewer of Arizona and Rick Perry of Texas, would ever certify such a thing.  Some suggest that Congress should decide when the border is secure – as if the same Members of Congress that blocked the best chance in a generation to pass immigration reform could be counted on to make a fair-minded, objective determination. Still others suggest that the decision should be left to the Border Patrol – as if the same Border Patrol agents on the ground who are openly antagonistic toward enforcement reforms and worry about securing their own jobs first can be trusted with such a decision.

As Paul Waldman wrote recently in the Washington Post, “’Secure the border first!’ is an utterly hollow position, because it’s never followed by any specificity about how we’ll know when the border is ‘secure.’ So long as even a single immigrant can find a way in, it will be possible for Republicans to say that the border is not yet secure, so we can’t enact any of the other parts of immigration reform.”

Moreover, “secure the border first” assumes the border is out of control.  After all, we all saw images of kids turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents last summer!  The facts are as follows: 1) According to the Migration Policy Institute, the federal government spends $18 billion a year on immigration enforcement, more than on all other federal law enforcement priorities combined; 2) All of the border security metrics written by hard-line Republicans that served as triggers in the Senate’s 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill have already been met; 3) The Senate immigration bill that passed in 2013 on a bipartisan basis had the toughest border security provisions in American history, and it still wasn’t “tough enough” for most Republicans;  4) Contrary to Republican claims that immigration enforcement has “collapsed” under this President, the Obama Administration has deported a record number of immigrants compared to previous Administrations; and 5) According to the Pew Research Center, net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero, and perhaps less.

As the Wall Street Journal editorialized in 2013: “Republicans who claim we must ‘secure the border first’ ignore the progress already made because their real goal isn’t border security. It is to use border security as an excuse to kill immigration reform.”

Mandatory E-Verify Plus “No Amnesty” Equals Economic Disruption and A Broken System Made Worse

Now let’s look at the second part of Walker’s statement. He argues for a mandatory E-Verify system with steep penalties to ensure that “small business and farmers and ranchers” only hire those here legally.  He goes on to argue that there should be “no amnesty” and that those here without authorization who want to get on a path to citizenship “have to go back to their country of origin and get in line behind everyone else who’s waiting.”

What would such a combination of elements mean for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are settled in America? And, along with his calls to restrict legal immigration further, what would they mean for the employers who hire some 8 million undocumented workers?  In a word, chaos.

Here’s how his policies would unfold. E-Verify, the federal government’s voluntary system for employers who want to check federal databases regarding employment eligibility, would be made mandatory. As it becomes more effective and more widespread, many if not most of the 8.1 million undocumented workers – comprising 5.1% of the nation’s labor force – would be forced out of the jobs they currently hold. This would cause enormous disruption to the industries that rely on undocumented workers.  For example, 26% of those working in farming, fishing and forestry are undocumented workers; 17% of those working in building/ground cleaning and maintenance are undocumented; 17% of construction and extraction; 11% of food preparation and serving, and so forth (see Pew Research Center report here). This is why so many employers support comprehensive immigration reform, which includes border enforcement, mandatory E-Verify, expanded visa programs for needed workers, and legalization for those already here.  They believe this combination will turn a chaotic black market migration system into a functioning, orderly legal system that will provide them with a reliable source of needed and legal workers.

What would undocumented immigrants forced out of their current jobs do? The anti-immigrant groups that gave Mitt Romney the idea of “self-deportation” (the organized anti-immigrant movement calls it ”attrition through enforcement”) believe that the combination of mandatory E-Verify and no opportunity to gain legal status would cause millions of undocumented immigrants to pick up and leave the country. But in the experience of states that have tried out such heavy-handed policies, especially Arizona and Alabama, many immigrants moved, but not back to countries of origin. Those that moved went to areas in America where they could find jobs. Even if we assume that some would give up and return to their countries of origin, it’s reasonable to predict that most would stay in the U.S.  After all, most live in families and most have been in the U.S. for more than a decade.  But, since more and more will be forced out of formal jobs to work off the books for unscrupulous employers and illegal sub-contractors, the problems associated with the status quo – exploitation of immigrant workers, the undercutting of wages for all workers, unfair competition for employers who play by the rules – would undoubtedly get much, much worse.

Well, the undocumented here can go home and apply the right way, says Scott Walker. This statement displays enormous ignorance.  The fact is our system is dysfunctional because for almost all of the undocumented workers in America there is no line to get into.  Not here, not there.  Yes, there are a couple of controversial temporary visa programs (H2A and H2B) that allow workers in for months at a time before having to return to their countries of origin.  But for those able to be sponsored by U.S. employers and seeking full-time low-skilled employment, there are 5,000 permanent visas a year.  This is hardly enough to deal with the 8 million currently working in America. In addition, precious few have relatives in a position to sponsor them under our family immigration system.  But even more important is that, under current law, once a settled undocumented immigrant returns to their country of origin they are subject to a 10 year bar from the country as a penalty for having stayed in the U.S. without authorization for more than a year.

In other words, the deal Walker is offering the 11 million undocumented immigrants in America is this: you will no longer be able to keep your job; we will try to fine and jail any employer who hires you in the future; there’s no way for you to get legal status here in the U.S.; so leave everything you’ve built here and go back to your country of origin so you can apply for non-existent visas, which you are eligible for after your 10-year ban from the country.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Scott Walker’s newly-minted hardline immigration stance falls somewhere between radical and incoherent.  His sprint to the right in order to pick up a few votes from nativists in the GOP may make short-term political sense in a crowded GOP primary, but it has nothing to do with leadership, problem-solving or moving the nation forward.  What candidates say matters, and what Scott Walker is saying on immigration is as ridiculous as it is frightening.  What he once got, and now runs from, is that comprehensive immigration reform is the only way to better secure the borders, ensure most hiring is legal, create wider legal channels for needed workers and close family members, and open up a line for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to get into so they can apply for legal status, and eventually, citizenship. You can’t solve any part of the immigration puzzle unless you solve all of it, together. In the end, immigration control is a product of a functioning immigration system, and the only way to get from here to there is for a President to work with Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.”