Steve Chapman

Hardliners think the way to get rid of illegal immigrants is to get rid of the jobs they fill. In the Senate bill endorsed by President Bush, advocates of tougher enforcement got a new system for employers to verify that their workers are entitled to be here. Anyone newly hired (and, in time, anyone with a job) would have to pass a check of federal databases.

It's a fine idea in theory, but note that it requires government authorization for every employment decision in a large, dynamic economy, an approach that is just slightly at odds with the free market. It also presumes a level of efficiency that conservatives do not usually expect of government.

In practice, as a small-scale pilot program begun in 1997, the verification system has proven fallible. Randel Johnson, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, recently testified before Congress that the databases "are not always up-to-date, there is a high error rate in determining work authorization, and the program is incapable of capturing identity fraud." The Society for Human Resource Management estimates the new system will increase the administrative burden on employers tenfold.

Those who endorse a vigorous immigration crackdown are upholding a sound conservative idea -- namely, the rule of law. But for law to effectively rule, it has to accommodate reality. Believing that immigration enforcement can wall us off from people who are prepared to endure huge sacrifices to come here is more in the realm of dreams.

Any benefit a new law can achieve is bound to be modest and incremental, discouraging some illegals from coming, diverting others into legal channels and having no effect on others. Our leaders are better off trying for small improvements than insisting on grand solutions. In this and most other spheres of government endeavor, conservatives should know, it's wise not to expect too much.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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