The belatedly discovered surge of unaccompanied Central American minors across our southern border, expected to reach 90,000 by year’s end, has sparked a raucous, partisan debate over whether the minors were drawn here by President Obama’s lax deportation policies or were driven here by fear of murderous street gangs at home.
This “blame game” often lends itself to surrealism. For example, most border-surge photo-ops feature toddlers, even though 90 percent of unaccompanied alien minors are teenagers, more than 60 percent are 16-17 years of age. Similarly, while street-gang theorists cite sky-high Central American murder rates, the homicide rate is much higher in Detroit and New Orleans than in El Salvador or Guatemala, yet no one proposes that we subsidize the relocation of urban black teenagers to smaller and safer towns.
Focusing on whether unaccompanied minors are “drawn” by the president or “driven” by gangs also overlooks an evidently more important driver of the surge — the “parent magnet.” While only a small percentage of Central American minors have a parent, aunt or uncle in the United States, those minors overwhelmingly account for the border surge. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that more than 85 percent of non-Mexican unaccompanied minors are released to members of their own families residing in the United States.
Most of these family members must themselves be “undocumented,” since lawful immigrants have legal means to bring in their relatives without risking their lives. Undoubtedly, most of these undocumented adults were themselves induced to immigrate by the widespread availability of jobs for illegal aliens. In other words, without the “parent magnet” the flow of unaccompanied minors would be a trickle, not a surge, and there would be no parent magnet without the jobs magnet.
When recently informed that Congress would not act on the Senate’s “comprehensive immigration reform” bill, the president threatened to fix as much of the system “as I can on my own,” starting with expanding deportation relief already granted to so-called “Dreamers.” Clearly, however, a serious effort to fix the system cannot be limited to refinements of deportation policy. Mr. Obama ought also to consider his power to “demagnetize” the jobs magnet by implementing on his own one of the few uncontested reforms in the Senate bill — mandatory verification of every employee’s Social Security number.
Although employment of illegal aliens is prohibited, the prohibition has been eviscerated by proliferation of fake IDs and lax enforcement by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Still, while employers have little to fear from ICE, most live in dread of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), ordinarily requiring even illegal employees to come up with a Social Security number for IRS reporting purposes.
The IRS shares these Social Security numbers with the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration, having issued them in the first place, knows which are invalid or being used by multiple employees. Although the administration occasionally notifies employers of Social Security number discrepancies, it has refused to share that information with ICE, notwithstanding entreaties by the Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration. Were ICE given this information (starting with the roughly 200,000 Social Security numbers numbered 000-00-0000), it could rid the workforce of most unlawful workers simply by notifying companies that employ workers with discrepant Social Security numbers that ICE will pay a visit to any such worker who fails within a month to straighten things out at the local Social Security office. The Social Security Administration may argue that privacy considerations prevent disclosure of Social Security number abuses, but only a severely strained interpretation of our Social Security laws could outlaw sharing evidence of a possible crime, such as identify theft or unlawful employment, with responsible law enforcement agents.
Nothing in our immigration system can be more broken than the government’s willful failure to use information at hand to disable the jobs magnet that entices impoverished foreigners to abandon their families to work unlawfully in our country. Republicans argue that the antecedent to immigration reform must be securing the border, but a humane society cannot secure its border with tall fences and armed guards and then hoist behind the fences a giant billboard saying, “If you get past the fences and guards, and you don’t die in the desert, we’ve got a job waiting for you.” According to Amnesty International, nearly six of 10 illegally immigrating women are raped en route to their American jobs.
To be effective and humane, border security must be accompanied by mandatory Social Security number verification. If the president, otherwise unembarrassed about stretching his executive authority over immigration, sincerely intends to bring an end to border surges and other mass violations of our immigration laws, he should try his hand at ordering the Social Security Administration to share with ICE its records of suspicious Social Security numbers. He would thereby make clear to Central Americans, and to others thinking about exploiting our broken immigration system, that a repairman is at hand.
William Chip is an international attorney and a member of the Center for Immigration Studies’ Board of Directors.