By Bob Cusack - 12/06/06 12:00 AM EST
The selection of Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) to head the Intelligence Committee may be an indication that Democrats will press the Bush administration to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Reyes, a former Border Patrol agent, is one of the most outspoken proponents of enforcing these types of employer sanctions and appears to have an ally in Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who will be the House caucus chairman next year.
In an interview with The Hill earlier this year, Emanuel said many Democrats want to focus on employer sanctions as a way to stem illegal immigration. He accused the White House and the Republican-led Congress for letting “its guard down when it comes to employer sanctions.”
Reyes is a cosponsor of a bill by Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas) to increase enforcement of sanctions against employers of illegal aliens. And while the Judiciary Committee has lead jurisdiction on immigration reform, Reyes has argued that lax enforcement on illegal immigrants jeopardizes national security, which is under his panel’s purview.
He was the lead Democratic cosponsor on a bipartisan bill to enforce restrictions on employment in the United States of unauthorized aliens through the use of improved Social Security cards and an employment eligibility database. He worked closely with House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) in crafting the bill.
Republican leaders championed border security throughout the 109th Congress, but the GOP has been reticent to call for increased government enforcement on corporations.
A recent Government Accountability Office study showed that the enforcement of employer sanctions has been nearly nonexistent over the last few years. Audits of employers to make sure they are checking employee documentation fell 77 percent from 1998 to 2003. Based on available figures, after reaching a peak in the early and mid-1990s, employer-sanctions investigations, warnings and fines have all dropped sharply.
Reyes called the Republican-led immigration reform in the House “a waste of time” because, he claimed, it was an unfunded mandate, and he voted against the House border security bill. He also argued that Republicans’ border-security plan was politically motivated, stating at the time, “Instead of acting to secure our borders and pass immigration reform, Republicans are holding hearings, just so they can keep scapegoating immigrants.”
Democrats are expected to seek to permanently bridge the gap with “Lou Dobbs Democrats” that voted for “fair trade” policies, while avoiding alienating an expanding Hispanic voting bloc. In focusing on employer sanctions, Democrats hope to appear tough on border security and illegal immigration while avoiding alienating most voters.
However, this may be difficult to do. Asked whether Democrats are likely to push hard for more employer sanctions, a senior Democratic committee staffer familiar with the immigration debate expressed doubt: “I’m not sure that many people in either party want employer sanctions. There are just too many constituencies that don’t support this.”
The AFL-CIO opposed the Gonzalez-Reyes bill, and expresses reservations about expansion of employer sanctions based on Social Security number verification.
“Implementation of employer sanctions in the short run has been disastrous,” said AFL-CIO legislative representative Sonia Ramirez. “In the future I think that we would really be concerned with expansion of employer sanctions, and would have to look very carefully at any legislation to make sure that it will not give amnesty to any complying employers.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), the ranking member on the Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, supports employer sanctions but acknowledged union concerns last summer during the immigration reform debate: “The AFL-CIO has a meritorious argument that when you enforce employer sanctions, employers who are unscrupulous will then enforce them against innocent persons.”
Many business groups will oppose a Democratic effort to increase employer sanctions.
Angelo Amador, the director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, “We think everything should be done as part of a package. You need to address the 12 million [estimated illegal immigrants in the U.S.] and the future flow of immigrants, and our concerns of filling jobs, as part of immigration reform.” He promised to oppose any increased employer sanctions if they came to the House floor without other immigration reform provisions.
Some Democrats this fall called on their leaders to lay out a clear agenda on immigration reform. In a 25-page agenda document for 2007, Democratic leaders did not mention immigration at all, triggering criticism from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Still, Emanuel is committed to focusing on employer sanctions, saying earlier this year: “There are over 20 million businesses in the U.S.; the main attraction for people coming to this country is work and there has been almost zero enforcement … You have got to have a real consequence to hiring illegal immigrants if you want to fight it.”
Reyes did not comment for this article.