A Modest Proposal: Ensure that New Public Works Projects Employ American Workers

Ira Mehlman

1/16/2009 3:03:47 PM - Ira Mehlman

With the U.S. economy shedding jobs at the rate of half a million a month, President-elect Obama has proposed the most massive public works initiative since Franklin Roosevelt assumed office in the midst of the Great Depression. The plan calls for still greater deficit spending in the hopes of jump-starting our sputtering economy and providing jobs for millions of unemployed Americans.

If we are going to spend billions, perhaps even trillions, of borrowed dollars to create public works jobs, an absolute prerequisite must be an insurance policy that the beneficiaries of the program are U.S. workers. The mechanisms for guaranteeing that American workers are the beneficiaries of a massive jobs stimulus package exist, but it will be up to the Congress and the Obama administration to see that they are utilized.

One of the early decisions awaiting the new Congress and the Obama administration will be reauthorization of the E-Verify program that allows employers to check the employment eligibility of the people they hire. Without congressional reauthorization, E-Verify will expire in March.

Earlier this year, President Bush signed an executive order requiring all federal contractors and subcontractors to participate in the E-Verify program. With the Obama administration’s announced goal of having the federal government create millions of new jobs, enforcing laws against the employment of illegal aliens will take on added urgency.

It is the availability of jobs in this country that has attracted illegal aliens here for decades. As the economic crisis spreads around the world, millions of people in other countries will be searching for jobs wherever they can find them. Thus, without a reliable system to screen out unauthorized workers, a publicly financed jobs creation program in this country would certainly create a magnet for even larger scale illegal immigration.

President-elect Obama and congressional leaders should publicly commit to reauthorize the E-Verify without any political strings attached. The House of Representatives approved a five-year reauthorization in September by a vote of 407-2, but Senate consent was scuttled by a single member, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who demanded more than half a million additional green cards be issued – a figure ominously close to the number of jobs our economy lost in November alone.

As president, Mr. Obama should fully implement his predecessor’s executive order requiring that companies being paid by the public serve the public interest by employing only legally authorized workers. With hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars in federal contracts at stake, employers would have a real incentive to participate in the E-Verify program and, in doing so, ensure that American workers benefit from new public spending.

As an added benefit, the widespread use of E-Verify would increase the likelihood that billions of dollars are spent in the communities where the work is being done. Illegal aliens not only take jobs that Americans want and need, but a sizeable portion of their incomes flow directly out of our economy in the form of remittances sent to relatives abroad. Money earned by American workers would likely be spent locally, supporting, rejuvenating, and expanding local economies.

The best employment authorization system is of little use if the government is not prepared to enforce laws against employers who hire illegal aliens. Even before the bottom fell out of the economy and millions of American workers lost their jobs, Sen. Obama spoke emphatically about the need to hold employers accountable.

As president, he will have the opportunity to protect American jobs by maintaining and expanding current efforts to crack down on employers who deny much-needed opportunities to American workers by hiring illegal aliens. Without creating a single new job, the Obama administration could free-up millions of existing jobs by enforcing employer sanctions laws.

With 10.3 million workers in the U.S. officially unemployed, and nearly 20 million additional workers involuntarily relegated to part-time employment, job creation will clearly be the Obama administration’s most pressing priority. Who fills those jobs must also be of concern to the new administration. Reauthorization and expansion of E-Verify and vigorous government enforcement against businesses that employ illegal aliens would go a long way toward making certain that new and existing jobs are filled by American workers instead of illegal aliens.