I know that this question seems almost laughable, the punchline of a bad joke. But it is a very real question on the minds of those attempting to complete the 670 miles of fencing along our nation’s southwest border.
Asked whether a border wall could be built on deadline without illegal workers, Vaughan, with the general contractors group, told the Brownsville Herald in June: “It’s probably borderline impossible to be honest with you.”
In the Rio Grande valley, where work on 70 miles of the wall began last month, this question is even more pressing.
Valley longtimers have cracked wise about the barriers, saying they not only won’t thwart illegal immigrants intent on entering the country but that illegal labor will probably help build them. An estimated 8 million illegal immigrants already work in the U.S., and according to a Pew Hispanic Center report, about 1 in 5 were in the construction industry in 2006.
Federal officials say they have taken steps to ensure only legal workers build the fence that Congress conceived in 2006 in the name of national security. They include:
• In June, President Bush ordered all federal contractors to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s electronic system for verifying the Social Security numbers of their workers.
This “electronic system” is also known as E-verify, which is widely known to be a flawed and ineffective program. In a statement released yesterday, the US Chamber of Commerce commented on the E-verify system, saying, “[W]hile the Chamber understands that the federal government and employers have a compelling interest in seeing that every tool is made available to employers to ensure a legal workforce, the Proposed Rule is misguided, premature, and unwarranted.”
So, this first step to ensure contractors only use “legal” labor seems highly ineffective.
Lets look at the next steps:
• Private companies wanting a piece of the $1.2 billion fence-building project face heavy scrutiny; before they can even join a pool to bid on federal contracts, they must agree to a long list of terms, including that they will hire only legal workers.
Wait, so if they say they will only hire “legal” workers, then they obviously mean it, right? Is that the “heavy scrutiny” they will face?
• Contractors found using illegal labor face legal repercussions, said Homeland Security spokesman Barry Morrissey. “We expect contractors to uphold these agreements,” Morrissey said.
In 2006, a contractor in Southern California agreed to pay nearly $5 million in fines for hiring unauthorized immigrants to build millions of dollars’ worth of fencing, work that included some of the border fence between San Diego and Mexico. So, it seems like these companies are willing to take the hit of “legal repercussoins” if they can continue to exploit unauthorized immigrants for cheap labor.
So, what does this all mean? I believe that the border wall project speaks to the entirety of the immigration debate. Not only do most experts agree that a wall will be ineffective, but we can’t even ensure that we could complete the project without using the hands of those we wish to keep out. In short, our immigration system is broken and only just and humane comprehensive immigration reform is going to fix it. A wall is merely a band-aid, albeit a costly one, on the gaping wound that is our current policy.