Thursday, August 1, 2013


WSJ Op-Ed on immigration, with extra comments.  Original here.

Think Government Is Intrusive Now? Wait Until E-Verify Kicks In

Source: Wall Street Journal
Massive border security and E-Verify are central provisions of the Senate immigration bill, and they are supported by many in the House. Both provisions signal how wrong-headed much of the immigration-reform effort has become.

E-Verify is the real monster. If this part of the bill passes, all employers will be forced to use the government-run, Web-based system that checks potential employees' immigration status. That means, every American will have to obtain the federal government's prior approval in order to earn a living.

E-Verify might seem harmless now, but missions always creep and bureaucracies expand. Suppose that someone convicted of viewing child pornography is found teaching. There's a media hoopla. The government has this pre-employment check system. Surely we should link E-Verify to the criminal records of pedophiles? And why not all criminal records? We don't want alcoholic airline pilots, disbarred doctors, fraudster bankers and so on sneaking through.

Next, E-Verify will be attractive as a way to enforce hundreds of other employment laws and regulations. In the age of big data, the government can easily E-Verify age, union membership, education, employment history, and whether you've paid income taxes and signed up for health insurance.

The members of licensed occupations will love such low-cost enforcement of their cartels: We can't let unlicensed manicurists prey on unsuspecting customers, can we? E-Verify them! And while the government screens employee applications, they can also check on employers' compliance with all sorts of regulations by looking at the job applications they submit for verification.

E-Verify proponents imagine some world in which a super-accurate government database tracks each person's legal status, and automatically enforces straightforward rules. Maybe on Mars. In our world, immigration and employment law is a complex mess, and our government's website-building capacity (see under: "health-insurance exchanges") can't possibly handle millions of people who are trying to evade the law. Permission to work inevitably will rely at least in part on the judgment calls of an army of bureaucrats.

Political abuse is just as inevitable. Consider Catherine Engelbrecht, reportedly harassed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, all for starting a tea-party group. But the E-Verify bureaucrats would never cause her trouble in getting a job or hiring someone, right?

Soon, attending a meeting of a group that is a bit too enthusiastic about the Constitution or gun rights—or being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally—could well set off a "check this person" when he applies for a job. If the government can stop you from working, how can you be free to speak out in opposition?

It's the need for prior permission rather than ex-post prosecution that makes E-Verify so dangerous. A simple delay in processing or resolving an "error" in your data is just as effective as outright denial, cheap to do, and easy to cover up.

Every tyranny silences opponents by controlling their ability to earn a living. How is it that so many supposedly freedom-loving, small-government Republicans want to arm our nation's politicized bureaucracy—fresh from the scandals at the IRS and elsewhere—with the power to do just that? Why are we so afraid of immigrants that we would jeopardize this most basic guarantee of our political liberties?

Many opponents of immigration worry that immigrants will overuse expensive social services. The fear is misplaced. The Congressional Budget Office estimates more than $100 billion of net fiscal benefit from the limited expansion of immigration that's allowed by the Senate bill. And this fear does not make any sense of the system's preferences for current citizens' family members—who are less likely to work and more likely to consume services—over workers and entrepreneurs.

Perhaps some Republicans worry that immigrants will vote Democratic. But then limiting entrepreneurs and workers makes even less sense. These Republicans should have confidence that their ideas on freedom will attract ambitious, hard-working migrants.

Others say they want to protect the wages of American workers. Like all protectionism, that is demonstrably ineffective. Migrants come for jobs Americans won't or can't do, and businesses build factories abroad if workers can't come here.

The Senate bill promises higher caps for "guest workers." Ponder what "guest worker" really means. Come to America, pick our vegetables, clean our bathrooms and tend our gardens at the invitation of a powerful employer. Pay taxes. And when your visa runs out, go back where you came from—there is no place for you here. This is how Middle East sheikdoms treat Filipino maids and Palestinian construction workers. Is this America?

In the current vision of immigration reform, millions will still be trying to sneak in, and millions more will remain here working illegally. E-Verify and the border security wall prove it. If people could work legally, there would be no need for a system that endangers everyone's liberty to "verify" them. And there would be no need to build a $45-billion monument to imperial decline— our bid to outdo the walls of Hadrian, China and Berlin—to stop them. [Only the ruins won't be pretty enough to attract Chinese tourists a few centuries from now.]

Here is the crucial question for genuine immigration reform: How do we respond when someone says, I have heard of your freedom. I am tired of the corrupt police in my country, the bought-off courts, the oppression of rulers, the tyranny of the religious or ethnic majority. I want to join the one country on earth defined by an idea, not by conquest, religion or ethnic identity. No, I don't have a special skill or a strong back useful to your politically connected employers. I want to come, drive a cab, open a convenience store in a poor neighborhood, work long hours, pay taxes, send my children to school and, eventually, vote.

The answer in the Senate bill and emerging House debate remains: Stay home. America is closed. [The question is, why?]


A few more comments.

Boiled down to one sentence, where this all started. Grumpy reads the news. Reaction: "You guys want every American to have to ask the permission of the Federal Government in order to get a job??? Have you lost your minds? How many founding fathers are rolling over in their graves?"

Space is at a premium in an oped so a lot of fun stuff got cut including the few [] above.

I know there is a serious empirical literature on how much immigrants do or don't affect wages here, and whose wages. Also, I said jobs that Americans "can't or won't do," and any economist should always ask "at what wages."  I had one sentence, so give me a break. (Though, from what I've read, the wages it would take to get Americans to work at a poultry processing plant or pick fruits and vegetables would imply pretty astronomical price increases - or wholesale movements of those industries abroad.)

But... If it raises the welfare of Texans to keep out workers from old Mexico, why does it not make sense for them to keep out workers from New Mexico? National borders have no meaning in economics.

And even if it did work, it would merely be a pure transfer, a zero-sum game. If we want to subsidize wages of some Americans, do we really to tax the wages of poor Mexicans to do it?  Is this America's place in the world, to engineer transfers form poor Mexican migrants to our workers? The tax also shows up on the prices Americans pay, often the same Americans whose wages we're trying to subsidize. A most basic principle of economics is: don't engineer wealth transfers by distorting prices. If you can understand that for ethanol, you can understand that for labor.

The one-sentence shot about moving factories abroad is serious. The studies showing some benefit from keeping out foreign workers typically document short-run effects.  We've been keeping out foreigners for two generations now, and it doesn't seem to have helped the wages of workers who compete with foreigners a lot! People also choose which occupations to enter.

I didn't have room to talk about the 11 million already here. One decent thing in the Senate bill is to recognize that we can't go on like this with 11 million people relegated to second-class status. However, making them wait another 13 years before they can become citizens... Didn't we once have a revolution about "taxation without representation?"

The "guest" worker visas only allow them to work in "qualified" industries and for limited amounts of time. That means e-verify is already set up to check that you're allowed to work in specific industries, and for specific time periods, not the simple in or out you might imagine.

"Soon, attending a meeting of a group that is a bit too enthusiastic about the Constitution or gun rights—or being arrested at an Occupy Wall Street rally—could well set off a "check this person" when he applies for a job" Besides the grammar getting a bit mangled in the edits, we lost sight of just how plausible this is. Of course "terrorists" shouldn't be allowed to work in the US, right? How many congresspeople would vote against a bill adding "potential terrorists and national security threats" to the e-verify system?  But of course bureacracies' idea of "terrorist" and yours and mine might be a bit different. Mark Steyn (a favorite of mine) is illuminating here
The other day, The Boston Globe ran a story on how the city's police and other agencies had spent months planning a big training exercise for last weekend involving terrorists planting bombs hidden in backpacks left downtown. Unfortunately, the Marathon bombers preempted them, and turned the coppers' hypothetical scenario into bloody reality. What a freaky coincidence, eh? But it's the differences between the simulation and the actual event that are revealing. In humdrum reality, the Boston bombers were Chechen Muslim brothers with ties to incendiary imams and jihadist groups in Dagestan. In the far more exciting Boston Police fantasy, the bombers were a group of right-wing militia men called "Free America Citizens," a name so suspicious (involving as it does the words "free," "America," and "citizens") that it can only have been leaked to them by the IRS. What fun the law enforcement community in Massachusetts had embroidering their hypothetical scenario: The "Free America Citizens" terrorists even had their own little logo – a skull's head with an Uncle Sam hat. Ooh, scary! The Boston PD graphics department certainly knocked themselves out on that.
Do you really want people like this deciding who can work -- and in what industries -- in America? The e-verify system is already connected to homeland security!

The opposite is just as worrisome. The big data miners at the NSA and homeland security will surely be interested to monitor every time a "suspected terrorist" applies for a job, no?

I had a lot more examples of past political persecution in this country.  Historically the left has been persecuted by the government a lot more than the right. The FBI harassed civil rights leaders. Remember the red scare, and the blacklist. Good thing we didn't have e-verify back then.

Henry Miller (also Hoover) had a lovely NRO post on Thursday with detailed accounts of politicized discretion at work in Federal Agencies. Read this and think about how e-verify will work.

The worry that Federal control of employment will  misused is not a new thought. See chapter 1 of Milton Friedman "Capitalism and freedom."

An economic e-verify consequence I didn't have space for: expansion of the underground economy. There will still be millions of people here trying to work illegally. If not, what's the point of e-verify? Many of the 11 million here who won't qualify for the rather strict program to stay, and the slightly looser caps will still leave many shut out.

OK, so there's this much more effective e-verify, you need a job, and your employer needs a worker. What do you do? Answer: go fully illegal. The current system, in which illegal (or maybe I should use the new word "unauthorized." I like that one!) workers can get fake social security numbers and continue semi-legally, paying taxes, paying social security and medicare (on which they will never collect), and enjoying some legal protection, goes down the toilet. Now it's cash under the table.

And once employers get used to cash under the table, why stop with the immigrants? Benefits, health care, taxes, red tape, unions, NLRB, OSHA, it's all getting to be such a pain. Why not pay the Americans cash under the table too?

It's one more step to a two-tier economy, like much of southern Europe. There are a few "good" full time legal jobs with benefits, pensions, etc. And a vast amount of black-market work. Especially for young people, recent migrants (authorized or unauthorized), minorities, and so on.  Even a true-blue libertarian wants work to operate with protections afforded by the legal system -- enforceable contracts and all that. And anyone with a vague soft spot for labor laws including safety, health, worker rights and so on, ought to worry about the consequences of expanding completely illegal labor.

Just because you pass laws against things doesn't mean they stop.

Oh those looser caps. A bureaucracy has to certify that economic conditions are strong enough before more people get let in. The lobbying on that one will be fun to see. Maybe they can import some retired Fed governors. My forecast: labor markets will be strong enough to admit immigrants when there is no American voter who wants a better job, i.e. when hell freezes over.

For a half century, we decried that the Soviet Union controlled who could work where, and ruining the lives of dissenters. We decried that they posted soldiers at the border with guns to stop people from leaving. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Do we really want to set up the system that allows the former. And does it really matter which side of the border has the soldiers with guns? Certainly to the people trying to pass, it matters not one bit.

Thanks without blame to Tom Church at Hoover for a lot of help on facts.

If you're still reading, here's an earlier post with more


Richard Sobel has a nice piece making an important point that I totally missed. E-verify will have to mean a national, biometric identity card. Now, you submit a social security number. What stops people from submitting false names and social security numbers? Hmm need to make sure they are who they say they are...

I also didn't think to point out another danger. Now the Federal government and its Big Data base know every time you apply for a job. Hmm, why is that guy Cochrane applying for a job again? Checking how often you apply for a job will naturally be an important way to check against false social security numbers.


  1. You can have a welfare state, and you can have a country with open borders. But, you cannot have them both at the same time.

  2. I may share your concerns about E-Verify and other attempts by BigGov to intrude into all our lives. But that CBO report you cite is nonsense. The rest of what you say is not convincing either. And it seems clear as well that you don't know much about the welfare system, state by state and nationally. "National borders have no meaning in economics," which is true enough, I suppose, and why Milton Friedman was for open borders--so long as there was no welfare system.

  3. Ostensibly, we are all required by law to verify our employment eligibility - under existing immigration law - prior to beginning work (I assume everyone is familiar with presenting a drivers license and social security card, or two equivalents, to new employers).

    Out of curiosity, why do you find a procedural change to E-Verify from self-verification particularly offensive, from a civil libertarian point of view? As long as the exclusion process is negative (eg, everyone is legally entitled to work until the government reports otherwise based on the information available to it), E-Verify has the potential to be BETTER than current procedure, imho. I am a natural born citizen, but finding (or obtaining a new) social security card just because I changed jobs is a hassle and a burden. The state ought to confirm (or dis-confirm) my eligibility itself.

    1. I am not "eligible" or "authorized" to work in this country. I have a right to contract. The problem isn't E-Verify or some alternative means of demonstrating "eligibility." It is the denial of human rights.

  4. I just don't understand what you propose we do. There has to be some compromise between opening up immigration, which is good, and enforcing some sort of law and order in terms of keeping track of who's entering the country, etc.
    we cannot have a free for all, isn't that self evident? And your analogy with New Mexico is flawed. Just because Texas does not keep out New Mexicans does not automatically lead us to conclude that it should not keep out Mexicans. the fact that New Mexicans can enter Texas is the current state of affairs. It has nothing to do with immigration issues we are discussing.

    1. It isn't about automatic, it is as stated about economics. Do Mexicans pose any more serious of a threat to the security (job or otherwise) of Texans than New Mexicans pose?

      If the answer is no then at best the current state of affairs and even the questions the country is asking itself are economically retarded.

      We don't have to let the senate frame the debate.

    2. And if the answer is "yes"? What then?

      Lots of low-skill jobs are not easily tradeable. Allowing in lots of low-skill immigrants from poorer countries pushes down the wages paid to native low-skill labor.

  5. Is there a conceptual difference between 1) me keeping someone locked up in my house against their will (Soviet Union), and 2) me refusing to let someone into my house (let's say, Canada)?

    I find it interesting how many libertarians, staunch defenders of individual property rights, all of a sudden become complete socialists when it comes to defending joint property rights, in particular the joint ownership of a country.

    One question I always like to ask libertarians, since the answers are often quite revealing, is: "What would you want the US government to do if 300 million committed communists wanted to enter the US, knowing full well that they would democratically transform the country into a socialist state?"

    1. Short answer: because "we" don't "own" the country in the same manner that you own your house.

    2. Yes we do. Think about it some more.

    3. No, we don't.

      Gosh, this is fun!

      Okay, fine. Try selling your share.

      Still think you own something?

    4. We already know how E-Verify will work. We have the no-fly list. A few people will have their lives and livelihood destroyed by it.

      Since only a few people will be affected, few will care at all about the problems; most people will just assume that "where there's smoke, there's fire".

      But the xenophobes, who have taken over our once-free country, will be happy. Every time they get asked for "your papers, please", they will remember that "THOSE people don't have papers!" and will feel smug.

      I predict that E-Verify will be very popular, indeed.

      And a creeping landslide of civil rights disasters.

    5. "Try selling your share"

      Try selling your share in a housing cooperative or gated community to anyone you like.

    6. Better Analogy would be thinking of citizenship as a membership in a nonprofit country club. You cannot "sell" your membership to anyone, but acceptance into the club depends upon the consent of other members.

      Even though you don't have ability to transfer your membership, you do have "use" of your membership, which is the most important aspect of the right of ownership.

      We should not admit members into the club who don't pay sufficient dues to support the club, or actually suck proceeds out of the coffers of the club to the detriment of the other members.

      Yes, with the welfare state in full force, these are important considerations when considering who should enter and live in this nation.

  6. Immigration reform should be simple...

    1 - Let anyone that wants to work in America, work in America.

    2 - Eliminate "birth tourism" and only enfranchise people that are children of citizens.

    3 - Auction of 500,000 citizenship franchises every year to the highest bidders. Use the proceeds to reduce our unfunded social liabilities.

    1. There is lot of merit in what you propose but We need more than just 500K to end the back,og of applicants.

    2. What you call "birth tourism" may be the single most important factor behind the technology edge that the US still maintains over the rest of the world. But anyway rest assured, there is zero probability that the 14th amendment will be revoked. US elites are anything but suicidal. They would sell Washington state to China and Alaska back to the Russians before the children of immigrants lose the franchise.

  7. And yet there is so much resistance to showing ID in order to vote for our country's leaders. Why don't we have E-Verify for voting?

    I can just imagine what life will be like for the people who fall into E-Verify Hell, like the folks who are mistakenly placed the no-fly list.

  8. Believing in democracy, I for one believe that the existing citizens of a country have an absolute moral right to collectively pursue their self interest in deciding who to let in.

    That said, E-Verify is horrifying for the effects it will have on existing legitimate American citizens. Do the proponents of E-Verify somehow think that it will only apply to people with dark skins and funny names or funny accents? Your ancestors could have come on the Mayflower and fought in the Revolution but a clerical screw-up at E-Verify and you cannot earn a living anywhere in the United States.

  9. Jeez, I can remember flying on jetliners without even showing ID. That was at the height of the Cold War, btw. We faced a real adversary then. The Soviet Union had 3 million men in uniform, a blue-water navy, ICBMs, supersonic bombers, a KGB, nuke subs and they were building more every year.

    Our borders were wide open.

    Now? The enemy is some guys armed with box-cutters? Cooking pots? Panty-bombers? Homemade bombs in wastes of Afghanistan?

    So, now that we face real threats, we have e-verify and seal the borders and a hysterical NSA recording every phone conversation and e-mail.

    Does one sense the $1 trillion-a-year defense-VA-homeland security industry is reaching?

    How did we ever survive the Cold War?

  10. You are missing the main reason for e-verify: corruption among employers. They are supposed to verify eligibility to work in the U.S., but they want cheap labor, so they break the law. E-verify will track and record whether they checked employee's status before hiring him/her. You complain that the system will be abused, but that is not the main point. The point is whether e-verify will cause more harm than good. If you oppose it try to show that it will in fact do mor harm than good.

  11. John, Absolutely spot on. Thanks from millions of people (literally) for taking the time. Just tweeted the link to all my followers. I think there are four. (Just started a week or so ago.) :) F

  12. "These Republicans should have confidence that their ideas on freedom will attract ambitious, hard-working migrants."
    You want them to believe a falsehood. Lots of Republican congresscritters are plenty dumb, but they're not so dumb that they all believe a low-income Dem leaning demographic will switch sides based on immigration policy (check out some polls on what various voters prioritize).

  13. Would love to return to the Golden Era when you didn't need a passport to travel, and we did not have the welfare state. When we return to that state of affairs, then we could dispense with passports, social security numbers, and E-Verify.

    May I suggest a less onerous implementation of the E-Verify system? Employers may only deduct the payroll expenses of those employees who have been authenticated by E-Verify as being legally eligible to work in the US. You would still be free to hire someone who doesn't have a SSN, but you just couldn't deduct their wages to reduce your net income to lower your tax obligation.

  14. Combine that with the coming PRISON economy

    (which is already widely promoted by, (1) Lindsay Lohan, (2) MSNBC (3) Stop&Frisk*Plant (4) TV Serials about PRison "Orange is the New Black" (5)New Mandatory minimum sentencing for planted Drug "finds"

    hmmm.....see a pattern here?

  15. I'm very naive when it comes to economics/politics, but it seems to me when harsh restrictions like "E-Verify" are put in place, there is typically an underground backlash. If we restrict the immigrant workforce there seemingly would be an uprise in the "under the table" workforce.

  16. "Stay home. America is closed. The question is, why?" , Well if we were to look not at the state of the american worker and economy and the effects of immigration but instead look at the effects and further more motivation of immigration from an economic perspective in the view of mexicans and mexico's population you would see that, both the mexican economy and immigrant workers benefit due to the laws of supply and demand for labor, as well as the effect on changing compensation rates.

    When Mexican workers leave mexico and immigrate to the us they not only get higher paid jobs and cost of living but they also improve the job market in mexico by reducing the number of skilled laborers and thus inflating the price they can command, but at the very same time they are reducing the wage rate in the united states because their is now an abundance of laborers willing to work at lower wage rates.

    With that said I agree that having an e verify system in place would only hinder and impractically hinder the rights of americans, and I think that this kind of reform should not pass.

  17. As an immigrant the "These Republicans should have confidence that their ideas on freedom will attract ambitious, hard-working migrants." is really on point.

    I can agree with the majority of policy, but when one party actively tries to kick you out of the country, I have no choice, but support the other party.


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

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