All of the immigrants interviewed by NJ were aware that Obama is proposing legislation that would give legal status to them or their friends. They are happy that the president is turning his attention to the matter, but they are dubious about his chances of success. “That’s a hope for us, but the problem is, they speak about this problem for years and nothing changes,” Jose says. “We try to live a normal life, but the problem is, I’m not sure if I come back home tonight.”
In Washington, how and when illegal immigrants can become U.S. citizens are among the most difficult questions the administration and Congress are tackling. Obama has a plan, and a bipartisan Senate “Gang of Eight” has also proposed a path to citizenship that is contingent on the borders being secured.
Both the Senate framework and Obama’s proposal would give illegal immigrants probationary legal status; they would have to “get in the back of the line” for citizenship. (Democrats won’t support any immigration plan that doesn’t immediately stop the deportations of noncriminal illegal immigrants.) In analyzing the proposals, civil-rights advocates worry that the citizenship wait times are so long already that the “immigrants on probation” would die before they get a chance to be citizens. Voicing similar concerns, Obama wants to ensure that any border-security contingency proposed by the Gang of Eight isn’t impossible to meet.
Democrats are pushing for citizenship, in part, because they want more voters. They also rightly point out that the bottom-feeder class that now makes up the illegal population would continue as a codified lower class if citizenship isn’t part of the plan.
The immigrants themselves aren’t worrying about that. The very idea of citizenship is so far from their daily concerns that it might as well be in Shangri-la. When asked how he would vote if he had the chance, Roy pauses and furrows his brow. “That’s a good question. I really don’t know.”
Bailey, of Sudie’s, and Shallal, of Busboys and Poets, are irritated that current law forces them to act as de facto immigration enforcers with no real tools. It is illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers, but they have few ways to detect them. They aren’t allowed to ask for different IDs from job applicants or to unreasonably scrutinize the cards the applicants give them. If the ID looks like a driver’s license, it passes.
Shallal has had to fire some kitchen workers when job applicants provided Social Security numbers already in use by other employees. That’s a sure tip-off that the numbers are up for sale by an identity thief.
Restaurant owners will say, when asked, that they don’t hire illegal immigrants. They also say they don’t know of anyone on their staff who is illegal. They are very likely telling the truth. Employers aren’t allowed to ask about a prospective employee’s country of origin—that would be discriminatory. They are simply required to keep copies of a new hire’s identification on file with an I-9 form, a dizzyingly bureaucratic document that generally does nothing but collect dust. A new employee can offer up many types of documents for the I-9, some of them archaic. Simple mistakes are made. The lunch rush may be starting. And document forgery is big business.
“When did business owners,” Bailey wonders, “become the bad guys of the Republican Party?”
Many restaurants, particularly large chains, use E-Verify, the government’s electronic verification system that checks a new hire’s name, Social Security number, and birth date against federal databases. The system can also check against Homeland Security Department databases for work-visa numbers. But E-Verify isn’t foolproof. A simple identity theft—data from a lost or stolen driver’s license, plus a savvy Web search—can give document forgers all the information they need to create fakes that will pass through the system.
E-Verify is popular among Republican lawmakers. They often say that making the now-voluntary system mandatory for all employers is essential to stopping unauthorized border crossings. Without it, job prospects will always be a draw for those on the other side of the border, they say. The business community, by contrast, is dubious about E-Verify. Business leaders say they don’t want employers to take on the role of immigration enforcers, and they worry about technical hiccups in the system.
Shallal doesn’t use E-Verify on principle. “I’m totally against that. It puts me in the position of being a policeman,” he says. “If anybody comes and has a really good fake ID, that’s not my problem. I’m not in the business to cut off somebody’s lifeline.”
But business groups are slowly realizing that E-Verify is here to stay. The program has been in existence for more than 10 years, which has given the government the opportunity to work out many of its bugs. A few years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reluctantly signed off on a mandatory E-Verify bill because it included a relaxation of some other state immigration laws that were troublesome to business. The bill didn’t pass.