As the U.S. Senate searched Thursday for a workable compromise on immigration reform, Nebraska's senior senator made it clear he wanted to see more happening on the enforcement side.
In his weekly conference call, Mike Johanns backed what he sees as a stronger E-Verify system for employers to use to screen out undocumented workers offering fraudulent proof of legal status when they apply for jobs.
“What's happening out there is that E-Verify is being circumvented by identity theft,” Johanns said. “In other words, the way to get around E-Verify is to steal someone else's identity.”
He wants to stop that by allowing employers to “use other tools that are available to make sure that the person sitting across the desk applying for a job is the person they claim to be and that they are legally here.”
The broader battle lines drawn in the Senate involve a path to legal status for an estimated 11 million undocumented residents and more security guards, fences and surveillance drones that can prevent more people from crossing the border illegally.
If Congress can settle on a solution, the impact could be big in Nebraska, where Latinos are heavily represented in entry-level jobs in meatpacking plants, the construction industry, and hotels and restaurants.
Johanns also wants to give governors in Arizona and other border states the authority to sign off on border security plans passed at the federal level.
“The initial proposal does have some serious weaknesses,” he said of the Senate reform bill. “I said they would need to be corrected before I could support it.”
While Johanns is active on the enforcement side, Arturo Spindola of the Nebraska Latino American Commission in Lincoln and Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Center for Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, are watching to see what might help millions of people avoid deportation.
Whether there are 10,000 undocumented residents living in Nebraska or as many as 30,000, Spindola said, meaningful reform means “not having to live in the shadows anymore.
“When you’re undocumented, the last thing you want to do is draw attention to yourself.”
Stepping out of the shadows would stimulate spending in Nebraska on houses and cars and deflect criticism about workers sending big chunks of their paychecks back to Mexico and other points of origin, he said.
“If you don't spend your money here, what else are you going to do with it?”
Gouveia, also a professor of sociology at UNO, said the House appears to be the bigger hurdle in fixing what many regard as a broken immigration system.
“I think, in the Senate, I'm very optimistic,” she said. “I think the Senate has different political calculus.”
Gouveia said if House members reluctant to back reform remember that “good immigration policy is good economic policy, they may be able to get out of that quandary.”
Spindola and Gouveia were skeptical about Johanns' support for the idea of giving border states the right to approve the details of border security measures.
Power given to individual states is power taken away from all states, Gouveia said. “I hope Sen. Johanns doesn't give up that much Nebraska power to border states.”
Spindola said all the ideas for enforcement, given as reasons for resisting reform, are like the layers of an onion. “So once you peel back one layer, you find another layer.”
Giving shared responsibility to border states for a border security plan is “another layer of the onion.”
Johanns thinks otherwise. “Border states are entitled to be involved in that process,” he said. “No one knows better what they're dealing with than the governors of the border states involved.”
Johanns declined to weigh in Thursday in an immigration dispute at the state level.
It involves a program advanced by President Barack Obama last year called Deferred Status for Childhood Arrivals and a federal lawsuit targeting Gov. Dave Heineman's refusal to treat approval as a gateway to a Nebraska driver's license.
Hundreds of Nebraska residents who qualified for the two-year program and the work permits and Social Security numbers that go with it remain in the passenger seat.
“On state issues,” Johanns said, “I tend to say the governor is doing a very nice job. And I have a lot of confidence in the way he does his job.”