Want Smarter Immigration Enforcement? Start at the Workplace, Not the Border

The immigration bill that solidly cleared the Senate is a strong step forward in comprehensive reform. I'll let those with greater imaginations than I contemplate the path forward in the House. Here, I'd like to amplify an important bit of commentary by David Kallick on the part of the Senate bill that spends 30 billion new dollars -- we're already spending about $18 billion a year -- on border security over the next decade.

As I noted here, controlling immigration flows is integral to reform. Fail to do so, and even if this measure becomes law, it will suffer the same fate as the ultimately feckless 1986 reform. But when it comes to achieving the goal of flow control, the marginal benefit of a dollar at the border pales beside employer-targeted measures.

At this point, a large minority (Kallick says "as many as 45%") of the undocumented immigrants already here entered legally and overstayed their visas. As far as they're concerned, border security shuts the barn door after the horse is out.

By making the E-verification system mandatory and harder to fool, the Senate bill moves the ball forward. But as Kallick points out, "it doesn't take an evil genius to figure out a way around these tightened processes: Employers could just hire workers off the books."

The best way to lastingly stop this problem is think less about border agents and more about labor inspectors.

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... There are now only around 1,000 labor inspectors to cover the entire country.

As the bill moves to the House, supporters of comprehensive reform are going to have to gauge at what point the legislation becomes unsupportable. In the case of border security, I'm afraid that question becomes: how much money are we willing to waste to get conservatives on board? Given the extent to which the border is already beefed up, a smarter bill would shift the enforcement locus from the border to the workplace, with more resources going to labor inspectors and verification systems.

Unfortunately, these days bills don't get smarter as they move from the Senate to the House.

This post originally appeared at Jared Bernstein's On The Economy blog.