Romney, Cotton Propose Swap: E-Verify for Wage Hike

For those who doubt the inherent wisdom of the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, look at the unlikely union between Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

President Trump’s strong supporter Cotton and never-Trumper Romney jointly introduced the Higher Wages for American Workers Act. The legislation would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $10/hr. To ensure that the higher wages are paid only to lawfully present workers, the legislation would mandate E-Verify. As written, the bill offers something for everyone – Democrats get the higher minimum wage they’ve been lobbying for and Republicans finally get E-Verify, the database program they’ve unsuccessfully pursued for decades.

Analyzing the bill at face value, it should sail through Congress. Everyone agrees that whether employers are paying the federal minimum wage, $7.25, or state minimum wage, no employee can enjoy a decent standard of living on that miserly income. In Hawaii, the state that has the highest cost of living, the $10.10 hourly wage doesn’t go very far since the average home price is $1.2 million, and the average monthly energy bill is $389. Unaffordable living costs for minimum wage workers are similar to Hawaii’s in California, New York and the District of Columbia.

Everyone agrees – a minimum wage hike is essential. The bill’s hang-up is E-Verify. In their rhetoric, most in Congress want jobs to go to citizens or lawfully present immigrants, especially in this challenging economy with more than 10 million people unemployed or underemployed. But in practice, Congress – Republican and Democrats alike – hasn’t had the courage to do the right thing and pass E-Verify.

Since 1997 when Congress first instituted E-Verify as the Basic Pilot/Eligibility Verification Program, it’s been used voluntarily, but Congress has blocked mandating it nationally. Yet the program is popular. As of 2020, more than 870,000 employers use it at more than 2.4 million hiring sites, with 1,500 new participating companies every week.

At different stages in their political careers, former President Barack Obama, Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Schumer and former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton enthusiastically endorsed E-Verify. Add to those enthusiasts at The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

In 2008, then-Illinois Sen. Obama summed up E-Verify’s merits: It will “remove incentives to enter the country illegally by cracking down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants.” Most foreign nationals who enter the U.S. unlawfully come for employment opportunities. Turn off the jobs magnet for aliens, and the unauthorized inflow would dramatically decline. E-Verify is of unprecedented importance today during the current historic border surge.

For too long, immigration critics have blamed immigrants for breaking the nation’s laws. But the responsibility is with employers who benefit from exploiting the vulnerable and profiting from the cheap labor they provide. Although hiring illegal aliens is a crime, employers are rarely charged.

During the period between April 2018 and March 2019, only 11 employers were prosecuted for hiring illegal aliens and, in the process, bypassing Americans. Of those 11 employers prosecuted, only three received prison time. Without E-Verify, unscrupulous employers can easily hire illegal immigrants, institutionalize a race to the bottom on wages, avoid offering affirmative benefits and potentially evade payroll taxes.

More than any other approach to ending illegal immigration, including a border wall, E-Verify is the solution to illegal hiring. E-Verify also provides an important indirect benefit. There are more opportunities for Americans and lawfully present immigrants when jobs aren’t given to illegal aliens. The Pew Hispanic Center’s latest research found that of the 8 million illegal immigrants employed, the majority worked in occupations other than farming.

More than anyone in Congress, Cotton knows how uphill his proposed legislation’s climb will be. In 2017, Cotton sponsored, and former Georgia Sen. David Perdue co-sponsored, the RAISE Act that included mandatory E-Verify as one of its many immigration-reduction features. Among 100 U.S. Senators, most of whom profess deep concern for American workers’ futures, Cotton and Perdue were the bill’s only co-sponsors.

The RAISE Act didn’t include a minimum raise hike, and the legislation was part of President Trump’s administration which means it would never have drawn bipartisan support. But now that President Biden occupies the White House, the Cotton/Romney bill is a great chance for proponents of a minimum wage increase and enforcement advocates to each walk away with something tangible for their constituents.