Wednesday, February 24, 2021


The Republicans are learning quickly how to be in the minority in Congress, and that’s good news.

How can you tell? That’s easy. They are starting to use the legislative process to move their own agenda and tangle the other side. As part of that, Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Mitt Romney of Utah on Thursday morning are set to introduce the Higher Wages for American Workers Act.

The legislation would phase in an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10 by 2025 and index it to inflation thereafter, while requiring employers to E-Verify their employees, phasing in implementation over 18 months to allow small businesses additional time to compl). The verification process prevents fraud by requiring workers 18 and older to provide photo identification to their employer, which will be cross-referenced through the federal E-Verify system.

The genius of the legislation is that it harnesses the progressives’ burning desire to raise the federal minimum wage to the single most important element of immigration reform — making sure that employers are hiring those legally eligible for employment.

The verification of employees in a comprehensive, timely and thorough manner has been the grail of immigration reformers for years. No one has yet been skillful enough to get it through Congress or bold enough to mandate it administratively, not even President Trump.

As a practical matter, by tying together the federal minimum wage and employment verification, the legislation ensures that rising wages will go to legally authorized workers.

That’s essential. Workers and companies understand that immigration, legal and (especially) illegal, serves primarily to suppress wages in the marketplace. It is no accident that in the previous century wages increased the fastest from the 1920s to the 1960s — a period that saw a pause in immigration into the United States.

By mandating employment eligibility verification, the legislation leverages the weakest link in an immigration system that sometimes seems largely indifferent about legality — companies’ fear of participating in criminality. It is not accidental that the legislation increases civil and criminal penalties on employers that hire ineligible employees or file fraudulent paperwork.

Forget the border wall. If the United States is serious about reducing illegal immigration, it needs to start putting those who employ ineligible workers in jail. Illegal immigration would dry up in a matter of weeks.

Moreover, rather than destroy 1.4 million jobs like the $15 federal minimum wage is projected to do, the proposed legislation would raise wages for 3.5 million workers without harming the very people it is intended to protect.

In short, mandating E-Verify would preserve American jobs for legal workers and rebalance the risk-reward equation for corporations on illegal immigration. The federal minimum wage increase and the verification would work in tandem to create upward pressure on wages. The phase-in would help employers adjust.

The legislation is also politically graceful. For the Republicans, they now have a better alternative with respect to the federal minimum wage. For the Democrats, especially for moderates in the House and Senate, the legislation creates a problem. They will need to explain to voters why they excluded consideration of employment eligibility when raising the minimum wage.

Mr. Cotton and Mr. Romney were also careful enough to leave themselves some room to negotiate. By setting the federal minimum wage at $10 an hour, they can offer a “concession” to increase the number to $11 — West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III’s new number — or even $12 or $13 if that helps make the deal.

This is what legislating looks like. It is good to see that Congress can still do it.

• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.

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