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Immigration policy imperils economy

The Baltimore Sun

Under a new federal directive, millions of workers whose Social Security numbers differ from government records will be threatened with dismissal, and employers who don't act within 90 days against those workers will face penalties, including heavy fines and possible prosecution.

That sounds good for those of us who believe in secure borders and respect for the law. But this enforcement-only focus on Social Security "no-matches" is an unrealistic approach that will severely disrupt our economy, hurting employers and workers.

Within months, it is estimated that 140,000 employers will receive Social Security no-match letters regarding 8.9 million workers. While these letters will force undocumented workers to leave jobs where they have been employed for years, they will not feel compelled to leave the country. Nor will national security be strengthened, as the undocumented immigrants will not come forward and be identified. Rather, many workers already in the shadows of our economy will begin a cycle of musical chairs, moving from employer to employer until the next no-match letter arrives.

Few industries will be affected as significantly as the construction industry - an engine of our economy, with more than 10 million workers driving 5 percent of our nation's economic output. An estimated 14 percent of those workers do not have legal status to work in the United States, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Without a realistic, comprehensive immigration policy that addresses the reality of undocumented workers who are here, the government-directed firings of millions of workers will destroy the ability of tens of thousands of employers to maintain stable operations. As the no-match directive takes effect, numerous construction contractors will lose a significant share of their work force, sending shockwaves through an economy that remains uncertain because of the continuing mortgage meltdown.

At the direction of unscrupulous contractors, many undocumented workers will operate as independent contractors to sidestep the Social Security no-match trap. This will make immigrant workers more vulnerable and make it unlikely that appropriate taxes will be paid.

The effect of all this will be to destroy long-standing relationships between many contractors and workers, blocking workers' opportunities for higher pay and advancement and driving immigrant workers further underground.

In many parts of our country, construction labor shortages make it difficult to get work done. Disrupting cohesive work forces will make it even more difficult to complete projects, from roadways to bridges to retail centers.

As representatives of organizations consisting predominantly of construction employers and workers - immigrants and native-born - we are committed to the laws of our country and the well-being of our members, employers and their families. But we know that that well-being cannot be protected if employers and the industry are in disarray.

We have gone too far for too long with a broken immigration system - one that has been complicit in allowing millions of undocumented workers to live, work, pay taxes, raise families and own homes here - to realistically think that we will be able to restore respect for the law and secure our borders simply through Social Security no-match letters and mass firings.

For the sake of our economy, Congress and the White House must return to the drawing board and produce comprehensive immigration reform legislation that recognizes that some American workers believe they are harmed by the effects of illegal immigration, but also recognizes the hard work and contributions of immigrant workers who are already here and the important role they play in our economy.

Terence M. O'Sullivan is general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America. His e-mail is Stephen Sandherr is CEO of the Associated General Contractors.

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