Having attempted -- and failed -- to gain congressional approval for immigration reform that would create a pathway to legalization for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, the Bush administration has declared a crackdown on employers who hire workers without valid Social Security numbers.
It's uncertain whether the crackdown -- requiring employers to fire workers without valid numbers -- is serious or mostly a political ploy aimed at calling anti-immigrant groups' bluff and persuading Congress to move on immigration reform. It's probably the latter, given the predictions by administration officials of negative economic impact.
But to the extent that it is serious, its greatest effect would be felt in California's economy, which is extraordinarily dependent on immigrant workers.
California farmers were already complaining about shortages of field workers, and if the crackdown continues, those complaints will extend to hotels, restaurants, construction, landscaping and other segments of the service economy that use large numbers of low-skilled workers.
Anti-immigration activists will contend that the crackdown will merely open up jobs for citizens and legal immigrants who are unemployed, but as a new statistical report from the Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy underscores, it's an argument that doesn't hold mathematical water.
California has, it's believed, about 3 million illegal immigrants, of which nearly two-thirds are workers. Were the Bush crackdown to continue and succeed in driving them out of their jobs, employers would have an estimated 1.85 million jobs to fill.
But as CCSCE points out, California has fewer than half that many workers on its unemployment rolls, so even if every one of those jobless workers were to take a newly opened job slot, we would still have a million-worker shortage.
It is, moreover, ludicrous to assume that all of those unemployed workers would fill the job vacancies, many, if not most, of which involve hard physical labor and relatively low pay. Unemployment in California has been running under 5 percent, which in historical terms is very low, and most of those on the rolls are just there temporarily.
The number of hardcore unemployed who can't find work is relatively small; just a third of the total has been jobless for more than 15 weeks. That means that perhaps 300,000 workers would be theoretically available to fill the 1.85 million job openings that the Bush crackdown would, if continued, create. But there are huge discrepancies between the qualifications, educations and backgrounds of the jobless and illegal immigrant workers.
The essential question is this: Would an unemployed real estate salesperson clean hotel rooms, wash dishes in a restaurant or pick crops as an alternative to collecting unemployment insurance? Not likely.
"The bottom line is that most unemployed workers are not available to replace unauthorized immigrant workers even if their geographical location, education, occupation and pay requirements were a match," CCSCE concluded.
The report's numbers accentuate what intelligent people already know -- that illegal immigrant workers provide important labor for huge segments of the California economy and that without them, the economy would face a crisis. And that brings us back to the stalled-out immigration reform legislation in Congress.
The solution to the dilemma is obvious: replacing the underground economy of illegal workers with the dignity of a guest worker program, thereby reducing or eliminating the dangerous chaos along the border, and building a humane, workable path to legalization for those already filling vital roles in the economy.
About the writer: Dan Walters is a political columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.