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Opinion: Why Isn't Trump Slamming Employers Breaking Immigration Laws?

Trump talks about border crossers breaking the law, but what about hammering on the employers hiring those without legal documentation?
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Fredericksburg, Va., Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016.Gerald Herbert / AP

Varying shades of deportation plans and building a border wall have dominated Trump’s political discourse. He’s firm on building a wall and mushy on what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country — especially now that he has to talk about actual plans.

One thing that has been missing from Trump's immigration back-and-forth has been what to do about the employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Immigrants come to the United States because there are people who want to employ them. If there wasn’t a demand there wouldn’t be much of a supply of immigrants – the Law of Supply and Demand, it’s Economics 101.

As a businessman, Trump should be keenly aware that American business demands attract undocumented labor. In fact, Trump himself has been accused of having undocumented labor on his projects – including his current Washington D.C. hotel.

Perhaps this is why Trump hasn’t hammered away at the employers who are creating the immigration pull. His stump speeches don’t talk about how employer sanctions can go a long way to solving immigration.

But, to Trump’s credit, in his immigration plan posted on his website, Immigration Reform That Will Make America Great Again document Trump calls for mandatory E-Verify and states that, “this simple measure will protect jobs for unemployed Americans.”

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E-Verify is a program that checks an employee’s personal data, supplied on an I-9 form, against Department of Homeland Security data as well as that of the Social Security Administration.

Sounds like a simple way to ensure that employers are following the law. It is, except that it is a voluntary program. The idea of E-Verify is a good one – help employers follow the law and by extension address the problem of illegal immigration. But what about those employers that don’t care about the status of their employees or hire under the table?

The punishing of employers who don’t follow the letter of the immigration law began with the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. Before then, outside of random immigration raids there was no penalty or deterrent for hiring undocumented persons. The employer sanctions provision was a principal pillar of IRCA and in theory should have resolved the issue of illegal entry once and for all.

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In practice IRCA’s employer sanctions were a dud.

The government never put the resources and manpower needed into effectively investigating and prosecuting illegal hiring practices. Add to that, the re-prioritization of national security concerns after 9/11. A study from the Migration Policy Institute shows, there was initial zeal in investigating cases and issuing fines in the late 1980s and early 1990s but that quickly tapered off.

Aside from the anemic enforcement of employer sanctions is the cost of the fines themselves. Bad behavior will stop only if it is punished sufficiently. The current schedule of fines is not prohibitive – especially for businesses with revenue in the millions.

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If you’re caught hiring an undocumented immigrant the fine can range from $375 to $3,200 for the first offense and the fees go up from there. Perhaps if the fines were exponentially higher on the first go around, employers wouldn’t try their luck a second or third time.

A program that fines in the five to six figure range and was actually enforced would go a long way in reducing the demand for workers who are undocumented. By the way, it's a lot cheaper and realistic than a wall.

If Donald Trump — who touts his business experience and acumen — is serious about addressing illegal border crossers, then why doesn't he talk about how American businesses feed into a system he condemns?

Perhaps emphasizing employers doesn't fit into his rhetoric. Trump likes to talk tough about immigrants who break the law, so now’s his chance to be tough on employers who break the law too.

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