Kerik's immigration sin, and ours

Posted: Dec 13, 2004 12:00 AM

   The withdrawal of Bernard Kerik's nomination for secretary of Homeland Security has revived the "nanny issue" from the 1990s. Like two failed Clinton nominees for attorney general, Kerik employed an illegal immigrant as a nanny and failed to pay Social Security taxes on her labor. Whether the nanny was really the main problem with Kerik's troubled nomination is open to debate -- media vultures are still picking away at his record -- but the brouhaha sheds light on the looking-glass world of American immigration enforcement.

    The political elite, which otherwise maintains an unshakable insouciance about the widespread disregard for the country's immigration laws, seems to think these laws should only be vigorously enforced when it comes to people nominated for Cabinet posts. If you might one day be considered for one of the nation's 15 Cabinet-level agencies, you must act as if immigration laws mean something. This double standard is, of course, absurd. We would never insist that only Cabinet nominees pay income taxes or abide by drug or labor laws.

    But politicos seem to realize that the largely upper-middle-class indulgence of hiring illegal household help, when engaged in by people nominated to enforce our laws, risks igniting a populist revolt best avoided. Thus Kerik -- nominated to head a department with responsibility for immigration enforcement, for goodness' sake! -- had to go. And he really had no excuse. Verifying an employee's legality is usually only a matter of asking for documentation or calling an 800 number to verify a Social Security number or immigration-document number.

    As the ton of bricks descends on Kerik, however, it is worth noting the stew of hypocrisy surrounding this issue. Last year, the same congressional Democrats now tsk-tsking the loudest about his fall initially opposed expanding a pilot program available in several states to allow employers to get an instant check from the federal government on the legal status of prospective employees. Democrats cited, among other things, concerns that it would discriminate against Hispanics. Republicans suspected the Democrats just didn't want to make enforcement any easier. The expansion eventually passed, and the system is now available nationwide.

    Indeed, it is a sign of the schizophrenia inherent in our system that the 1986 immigration reform actually made it illegal to ask a prospective employee about his legal status prior to hiring. That is considered discriminatory. The Office of Special Council for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices in the Department of Justice is responsible for cracking down on employers too vigilant -- or vigilant in the wrong ways -- about not hiring illegal workers. Given that in 2002 only 13 employers were sanctioned for hiring illegals, the federal government's priorities here are obviously badly skewed.

    On the nanny issue, Kerik has his quasi-defenders: "Everyone does it," they say, "everyone is forced to do it." Nonsense. Open-borders advocates make it sound as though there were never any housekeepers or nannies prior to the age of mass illegal immigration. There were. And somehow today, in those large swaths of the country without any illegal immigrants to speak of, people still manage to get their houses cleaned and their children cared for.

    The reliance on illegal labor on the coasts and in major urban areas is deeply corrupting. It fosters a casual contempt for the law among those who do the hiring, and it hurts the country's most economically vulnerable citizens. Poorly educated workers who might compete for the kind of jobs taken by illegals are either shoved out of the way entirely or see their wages cut by the unfair competition. Democrats and Republicans both tend to buck popular sentiment to defend this status quo for their own reasons -- Democrats to pander to ethnic lobbies; Republicans to pander to businesses that like cheap labor with no rights.

    All of this is why immigration laws should apply much more broadly than just to Bernie Kerik, or the next Cabinet nominee too careless to have observed the law in his own household.