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Employer Sanctions Should Go

AT last, Congress has the impetus it needs to seriously reconsider this country's failing immigration-control law. After three and a half years of study, the General Accounting Office (GAO) has released a report that says employer sanctions have caused widespread discrimination against people authorized to work in the United States. The GAO found that 891,000 (19 percent) of the 4.6 million employers in its nationwide survey ``reported being discriminatory because of the law.''

The GAO's findings come as no surprise to people like Richard Trujillo and Rosa Diaz (not their real names). Mr. Trujillo, a US citizen with a Social Security card, was denied a job when he couldn't produce an ``INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) number.'' Ms. Diaz, a legal, permanent resident of the US, was denied employment because her prospective employer didn't accept ``green cards'' as proof of work authorization.

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Both of these discriminatory incidents are linked directly to the employer-sanctions law, which requires employers to verify the work authorization of all newly hired employees. The GAO's latest report can be the first step to making sure the discrimination against Trujillo and Diaz and scores of others does not continue.

The employer sanctions provisions of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) make it illegal to hire unauthorized workers and establish fines and criminal penalties for employers who fail to verify their employees' work authorization properly or who ``knowingly'' hire unauthorized workers.

Unfortunately, employer sanctions have bred new kinds of employment discrimination. The race, ethnicity, accent, and surname of applicants and employees are foremost in the minds of many employers, who do not want to risk hiring anyone who may not be work-authorized. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) has found that to minimize the chance of being sanctioned, many employers are ``screening'' out Hispanic job applicants or are implementing unlawful blanket policies of hiring only US citizens.

Congress should be deeply concerned that it has enacted legislation that jeopardizes the livelihood of Hispanic citizens and legal residents. But will Congress have the courage to repeal this discriminatory legislation?

The GAO says it may be possible to fix the sanctions program to reduce discrimination. In addition to repealing employer sanctions, one of the solutions recommended is a ``counterfeit-proof'' uniform work-authorization card.

Even leaving aside obvious civil liberties problems, a uniform work-authorization system is unworkable. In a nation of 250 million people, no system is counterfeit-proof or foolproof. We must seriously consider the ramifications of entrusting to a huge bureaucracy the power of issuing identification cards that are a key to our livelihood.

Additionally, a uniform work-authorization card would remedy only one type of discriminatory practice - refusing to accept valid work authorization. It would not address the numerous other forms of discrimination triggered by employer sanctions - such as asking only foreign-looking or foreign-sounding applicants and employees to present work-authorization proof, and blanket policies of hiring only US citizens.

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And there are other reasons to repeal this harmful law.

The premise of sanctions is that it will curb illegal immigration by eliminating the ``magnet'' that draws immigrants to the US: jobs. This reasoning ignores the root of much immigration - the dire economic and political conditions in Mexico and Central America. Based on a flawed premise, it is no surprise that sanctions have not resulted in a noticeable decrease in the number of undocumented workers entering the country.

In addition, the INS estimates that employers are paying $182 million a year to perform the record-keeping required by the employer-sanctions law. The Small Business Association puts the costs at $675 million a year. Employers are paying in other ways, too. As of September 1989 the INS had assessed $15.5 million in fines against employers.

It is not too late to put an end to this pervasive discrimination against Hispanics and the unnecessary expense to business. According to a ``sunset'' provision included in the law, Congress has the power to review and repeal employer sanctions.

Congress must muster the courage to recognize that its grand experiment in immigration control is failing miserably. It must honestly weigh the costs and benefits of employer sanctions to the people of this country. The costs are serious discrimination against Hispanics and added expenses for business. The benefits in immigration control are imperceptible.

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