Ellsworth decisively defeated incumbent Republican Rep. John Hostettler, who as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration was fiercely anti-immigration. In fact, Hostettler made his opposition to amnesty for illegal aliens his central campaign issue.
But Hostettler’s defeat didn’t result in a simple mathematical gain of one vote for comprehensive immigration reform. Ellsworth has to represent the same conservative southwest Indiana district that Hostettler did. And the former sheriff also has qualms about giving illegal immigrants a special path to legal status.
In his initial foray into the immigration issue, Ellsworth has focused on employers. Recently, he introduced the Legal Employee Verification Act, which would establish a mandatory electronic verification system administered by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. It would also double the minimum fines on companies that violate immigration laws.
Ellsworth didn’t say how his proposal might affect the government-run electronic verification system currently in place. Known as Basic Pilot, the Web-based system checks new-hire information against Social Security and DHS databases. Employers have criticized Basic Pilot for being inefficient, prone to error and powerless against identity theft.
The new congressman decided to introduce a verification bill after conducting town hall meetings in his district, where he was pressed on immigration.
"My voters and my constituents wanted me to go back [to Washington] and do something," Ellsworth says. Verification "looked relatively inexpensive and not too intrusive on the employer."
Eliminating job opportunities for undocumented workers is the key to shutting down illegal immigration, Ellsworth argues.
"That’s going to be the first spoke that needs to be fixed," he says.
In Ellsworth’s view, companies have an important role to play once an electronic verification system is in place.
"They become an arm of border control," he says. "It’s not too much to ask and not much more than they’re doing now" in the I-9 system.
That a new member of Congress would address employment verification demonstrates the resonance of the issue. Resolving it will influence how comprehensive reform unfolds.
"The linchpin to everything is to make sure employment can be verified," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, said at a recent House immigration hearing.
Flake and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, have introduced the first comprehensive immigration bill in the House. The measure eliminates Basic Pilot and replaces it with a system based on machine-readable, tamper-proof biometric cards.
As the legislative process continues, Ellsworth’s vote may be difficult to obtain for reform advocates.
"If comprehensive [reform] means granting amnesty to the people who are here [illegally], I’m against that," he says. "If that is in the mix, I can’t support it, and lobbying by [House] leadership won’t do any good."