Enact Common Sense Immigration Reform

Will jailing small business owners make us feel better?

Two wrongs don't make a right. Turning business owners into criminals because the government can't muster the courage to address illegal immigration is no different than sending innocent people to prison for crimes they didn't commit. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle are rushing head first toward stronger enforcement against employers. It sounds good at first glance, except for one important fact: It punishes the wrong people.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, immigration enforcement is not primarily an issue for giant corporations--It's a small business issue. As an NFIB member, I understand that business growth depends on the availability of new workers. But government policies have made a complete mess of the labor market. More than 70 percent of NFIB's members are businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Of these, the vast majority have five employees or less. They are hit hardest by the labor shortage. They also have far less ability to verify the legal status of workers.

NFIB members understand the illegal immigration issue better than most politicians. An overwhelming 80 percent understand that the right solution is to require illegal immigrants to leave the United States and re-enter legally. That is the core of a proposal we have been advocating for several years, with one additional element critical to its success: Let the private sector, primarily small businesses, handle the implementation.

Requiring illegal workers to leave the United States and re-enter under our terms is a simple idea whose time has come. But expecting any government agency to handle a caseload of more than 10 million is pure fantasy. Instead we need to create incentives that motivate the workers to make the effort themselves.

Two things must be changed for that to happen. First, the number of allowable workers must be set by the marketplace—not by artificial quotas based on congressional politics and guesswork. Congress allows only 66,000 H-2B visas for the entire country each year, but we know my home state of Colorado alone needs more than that. Second, the congressional-directed bureaucracy that doesn't work must be replaced by businesses that will get the job done. We propose allowing private employment companies to set up offices outside the United States, run the required background checks and issue smart cards that can be easily tracked and verified by employers and by law enforcement.

Thousands of small businesses across the country perform these services every day. Companies routinely connect jobs and workers, run background checks, issue cards that are nearly impossible to duplicate and transfer information around the world instantly. Their motivation for speed and accuracy? Profits.

Both employers and employees already have a strong desire to operate legally. This plan would finally give them the means to do so. It would also eliminate 90 percent of illegal border crossings—making border control easier and cheaper. In fact, this plan would be financed by user fees, not taxpayer dollars. Best of all, it's a simple solution as old as America itself: Let the free market work.

Enforcement will remain a crucial element in solving this problem. But before turning thousands of small business owners into criminals, we must provide a way to help them obtain the workers they need. Otherwise we are at risk of simply trying to jail our way out of this mess.

Helen Krieble suggests an innovative proposal to address the legal guest-worker shortage in this country. Her idea was introduced as legislation by Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) last year, but has not been considered by Congress.

Helen Krieble is president of the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation.