WASHINGTON — For more than a month, senators have argued over which proposals are the most practical and effective at sealing the country’s border with Mexico. Sen. Michael Bennet said the debate is misplaced and asked his colleagues to look again at a bipartisan plan to tighten security requirements inside the country.
In a rare speech on the Senate floor last Wednesday, the Colorado Democrat argued that implementing a national employer-based verification system is more likely to stop illegal immigration in the future than adding untold numbers of border patrol officers.
“If (illegal aliens) know all across America that small businesses can run a biometric card or other ID through a database that tells them whether people are here lawfully or not, and in an instant know whether they are here lawfully instead of engaging in this game that has been played for decades in country where people with false security cards are able to come in and get a job and then a year or 18 months later, the employer finds out the Social Security is no longer available, that is going to dramatically disincentivize people from crossing the border,” Bennet said June 12.
Many of Bennet’s arguments against spending additional federal dollars to seal the border rehashed statements that his colleagues in the so-called “Gang of Eight” made in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. He said that the bill would spend as much as $6.5 billion to bolster border security and that larger expenditures would be excessive.
Yet Bennet’s argument for a national Employer Verification System represented a new wrinkle in the debate. In direct contrast to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), his colleague in the Gang of Eight, Bennet argued that the bill “crack(s) down on employers who hire undocumented workers … alone will reduce dramatically the incentive of people to cross the border illegally.”
Bennet’s policy-heavy speech came as the bipartisan group’s goal of amassing 70 votes in the Senate for the bill has come into question. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Modernization Act (S. 744) seeks to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
Earlier this month, Rubio told Politico that “(i)n order to get the law to pass, the border security and the benefits have to be tightened up.”
On the same day Bennet delivered his speech on the Senate floor, he and six other members of the bipartisan group met behind closed doors to express frustration with Rubio for embracing what they regarded as overly conservative border-security proposals, according to liberal blogger Greg Sargent of The Washington Post.
Bennet’s role in the ad hoc group has evolved. When the group made its goals public in January, Bennet’s role was so minor that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he and another member were “not part of the core negotiations.”
Now Bennet’s role is more defined if only slightly more high profile. Similar to the job he had as a teenager when he was a Senate page, Bennet has played the inside game of appealing to senators directly.
Bennet’s speech offered advice to senators wavering on the legislation. He counseled those worried about border security to meet with Arizona Republican senators Jeff Flake and John McCain to listen to their proposals and said the date at which E-Verify can be implemented is “certainly something we can talk about.”
With one exception, Bennet has avoided playing the outside game of appealing to the media, voters, and interest groups. He and Flake appeared at a breakfast the Christian Science Monitor sponsored last week. Yet his office released no statement on the 2,200-word speech. For the junior senator, the speech was a major address. According to Senate records, Bennet had spoken on the Senate floor only seven times all year.
“He’s been kind of the silent senator among the eight,” Roy Beck, founder and president of Numbers USA, a group that supports increased legal immigration, said in an interview. A Bennet spokesman declined comment on the senator’s role in the group of eight.
The employment verification system mandates that certain employers to obtain from employees their Social Security numbers and if necessary, their identification from the Department of Homeland Security. If the government cannot confirm the information, employers are required to inform their employees how to contact the Social Security Administration and the DHS.
All federal contractors must participate in e-verify; in Colorado, state contractors must participate in it or a similar program. Yet most businesses are not required to participate in the program.
The Senate bill would mandate different employers to implement the system by different dates. For example, agricultural employers do not need to implement the system until 4 years after the enactment of the legislation.
The legislation would levy civil fines on employers who hire unauthorized workers. A first-time violation would not be less than $3,500 and more than $7,500 per each unauthorized alien.
Beck said Bennet’s goal is laudable. “Probably I am sympathetic with him not being focused on the border. It’s easy to waste a lot of money that way … And I do think Bennet knows and thinks E-Verify is the way to (stop illegal immigration) in the future. If you can’t get a job, there is little reason to cross the border,” he said.
Yet Beck disagrees with Bennet’s method. He noted, correctly, that the bill does not require employers to verify if their current employees are legally authorized to work in the country. “This provision would be phased in on over five years. That’s long term, and it would be an incredible magnet for those wanting to get a job,” he said.
Beck’s statement contrasted with that of Rubio. Earlier this month, the Florida senator said in a video address that “(y)ou can only imagine if we implement universal E-Verify — meaning no one can work unless they have legal documentation, but you have 11 million people sitting there that one day we intended to get to but not now. None of those people would be legalized.”
In fact, the 11 million could get work before the Senate’s provisions on implementing E-Verify take effect. Yet Bennet’s policy did not win over Beck or Rubio politically.