WASHINGTON — While President Donald Trump is making his case for a wall along the country's southern border, U.S. Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman, both Republicans from Arkansas, tout a smaller, simpler, high-tech immigration fix.
A mandatory electronic employment verification system, they say, would slow the flood of illegal immigration into the United States.
But leaders in the agriculture community warn it would also drive up food prices and lower productivity.
The E-Verify system already exists, although its services are unavailable because of the partial government shutdown. Authorized by a 1996 immigration law, E-Verify is run by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Social Security Administration.
Use of the system is optional in Arkansas and most other states. It's mandatory, however, for federal contractors and vendors.
Businesses are increasingly relying on E-Verify, which allows them to use the Internet to determine if a job applicant is entitled to work in the United States.
In 2001, there were just 1,064 employers using the system. That figured climbed to 88,244 in 2008 and topped 745,633 in 2017.
In an interview Thursday, Cotton said the online system is inexpensive to operate and its error rate is "extremely low."
"It's very effective in stopping illegal immigration," the lawmaker from Dardanelle said.
Rather than the slower, more mistake-prone paper-based system, E-Verify provides correct answers quickly, Cotton said.
"If we had a nationwide mandatory E-Verify [system], the word would get out pretty quickly to those countries whose citizens right now are streaming across our border," he said. "If they learn in their home countries that every job they pursue, there's going to be an effective and immediate electronic verification system, they'll be less likely to cheat the system and come here in the first place; more likely to do the right thing and ... seek to come here either on a visa or to get a green card."
Efforts to make the system mandatory face opposition from some agriculture organizations.
The "Farm Bureau opposes any mandate on employers to use E-Verify until an acceptable agriculture worker program is in place that provides for future flow of guest workers and allows work authorization for workers not currently authorized," said Matt King, Arkansas Farm Bureau's director of public affairs and government relations. "A Farm Bureau-commissioned study shows enforcement-only immigration reform, including mandatory E-Verify, would cause production to drop by $60 billion and food prices to rise 5 [percent] to 6 percent."
Both Cotton and Boozman say there's a crisis brewing on the border. They both back the president's request for billions of dollars in additional funding for the wall.
Trump has raised the possibility that he'll use his emergency powers to build the wall without congressional approval.
Cotton said he hasn't "explored in detail what [Trump] means."
"The president has certain emergency powers under law so it would be a question of law and fact on how he declares that emergency and I would evaluate it on the merits then," he added.
Boozman said he hopes that route isn't necessary.
"I view it as a last resort," he said. "I'd like us to exhaust everything else first."
In an interview Thursday, Boozman said mandatory electronic verification would help ease the border problem.
"If people aren't hiring the people that are here illegally then they're not going to come because the work's not here," the lawmaker from Rogers said.
Simplicity is key, he said. "A simple system like E-Verify with minimal hassle for the employer would be, I think, an excellent step forward," he added.
That's a view shared by Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
The Washington-based think tank describes itself as "low-immigration, pro-immigrant."
"Clearly, mandatory E-Verify is the single most important step to reducing illegal immigration because it would address not just illegal border crossers but people overstaying visas as well and make it more difficult for them to find work. Weakening the magnet of jobs is one of the key steps to controlling illegal immigration," he said.
Mireya Reith, co-founder of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, said it's premature to debate mandatory electronic verification.
The immigrants-rights group she leads favors a broader discussion, she said.
"There's a thirst and an urgency that we're all hearing and we're all feeling to talk about immigration reform. But let's not, in this shutdown moment, try and rush any conversation. Let's get out of the shutdown politics ... so we can have these conversations and look at all the angles and really have thoughtful legislation," she said.
Legislation mandating electronic verification stalled in the House last year. Co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. French Hill, Rick Crawford and Bruce Westerman, it also would've created a new agriculture guest worker program. U.S. Rep. Steve Womack also backs electronic verification, his spokesman said. The four representatives are Republicans from Arkansas.
Rebekah Hoshiko, a spokesman for Westerman, said he favors mandatory electronic verification "provided it is part of a broader immigration reform package that solves larger issues."