Conservative columnist Ann Coulter has some advice for GOP presidential hopefuls: Hang tough on illegal immigration. Coulter sees illegal immigration as one of the two signature issues of the Republican presidential campaign (the other being repeal of Obamacare). Coulter predicts that if the candidates fail to be sufficiently hard-line, they'll invite future political suicide: "... Capitulate on illegal immigration, and the entire country will have the electorate of California."
Her column is not only lousy advice; it speaks volumes about how little she understands immigration policy.
Coulter's know-nothing attitude is best summed up by her solution to the illegal alien problem: "Among the most effective measures against illegal immigration is E-Verify, the Homeland Security program that gives employers the ability to instantly confirm that their employees' Social Security numbers are legitimate. It is more than 99 percent accurate, and no employee is denied a job without an opportunity to challenge the records."
In fact, the failure rate for identifying illegal workers under E-Verify is almost 50 percent. The most comprehensive study of the program, performed for the Department of Homeland Security in 2010, found that the program worked well only in identifying people who were eligible to work because they were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Coulter's 99 percent figure comes from this subset.
But the whole point of the program is not to identify people who are eligible to work but to weed out those who aren't. And here, the program fails miserably. According to the study, of the estimated 6 percent of all workers who were illegal immigrants, E-Verify missed almost half -- 2.9 percent.
The reason is simple: Illegal immigrants are enterprising, or they wouldn't be here in the first place. All employers (including those who hire a babysitter for more than a few hours or someone to cut their grass on a regular basis or clean their house) are required to fill out government forms verifying eligibility to work. As a result, most illegal immigrants present false Social Security cards, which they can easily buy on the black market for about a hundred dollars.
Those illegal workers who apply for jobs from companies that participate in E-Verify are smart enough to buy real Social Security numbers, which won't automatically bounce out of the system. Of course, this constitutes identity theft, which is a felony. However, the unwitting beneficiaries in this scheme are often legitimate Social Security recipients. In many cases, the person to whom the actual Social Security number belongs will have excess funds contributed to their Social Security account, which they -- not the illegal worker -- will collect in higher benefits when they reach retirement.
In other cases, when the number itself is fictitious, the money goes into a special account, which the Social Security Administration has dubbed the Earnings Suspense File. Over the last decade, illegal immigrants contributed about $7 billion a year in excess Social Security payments and another $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes. Coulter and the radical groups she cites, such as Numbers USA, conveniently ignore these facts when discussing the costs of illegal immigration.
But Coulter is also wrong on the politics of the illegal immigration issue. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans list illegal immigration as one of their top issues, according to recent polls. Nor are Hispanics the monolithic anti-GOP group Coulter presents them to be. As I've noted before, pro-immigrant Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. Yes, Republicans have lost support among Hispanic voters in the last few elections -- but largely because of the often nasty and false rhetoric employed by the immigration-restrictionist crowd. Illegal immigration is lower now than at any time in four decades, which you'd never know by listening to the hard-liners in the party.
If Coulter and other anti-immigrant stalwarts were serious about solving the illegal immigrant problem, they'd make it possible for needed workers to immigrate legally. Of course, Coulter's real fear is that these largely Hispanic workers and their children will reject the GOP. But even without more Hispanic immigrants, this segment of the population is growing rapidly. And the Coulters of the world are likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy with their anti-Hispanic rhetoric.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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