A caravan of thousands of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador is headed north toward the southern border of the United States. Their end goal? Eventual “asylum” status within our borders.

This surge in unfettered immigration is the new normal. The number of families arrested for unlawfully crossing the southern border spiked nearly 40 percent between July and August. So far this year, the Border Patrol has apprehended more than 350,000 illegal immigrants.

The chaos at the border will continue unless Congress reforms our warped asylum and employment laws, which entice people to illegally journey to the United States.

The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants come to America in search of economic opportunity. It’s easy to see why. In most regions of the U.S., the economy is humming. The unemployment rate recently dropped to 3.7 percent, the lowest level since 1969.

In many Latin American nations, the economy is far weaker. For instance, about 7 percent of Salvadorans are currently unemployed. And wages are much lower — the per capita GDP of Honduras is just $2,200. Nearly all recent deportees came to the United States in pursuit of work, according to Pew Research Center.

It’s relatively easy for illegal immigrants to find jobs. An estimated 5 percent of the U.S. workforce is here illegally.

Employers are happy to take advantage of illegal immigrants’ cheap labor. Three in four illegal immigrants have worked without compensation, according to the National Employment Law Project. And 37 percent have been paid less than minimum wage.

The federal government has done little to deter illegal hiring. It doesn’t require companies to thoroughly vet the legal status of their workers. And it rarely prosecutes employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.

Easily abused asylum policies further incentivize people to come here illegally. Before 2009, only people claiming persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, or membership in a particular social group could receive asylum. But early in the Obama administration, the government began granting asylum to people who claimed to be victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. This is at the root of the current problem.

Suddenly, asylum became a golden ticket to a better life in the United States. The number of asylum seekers skyrocketed — almost 1,700 percent over ten years ago. Last year, more than 141,000 immigrants sought asylum.

Many of these folks come from countries racked by gang violence. But even that is not the primary reason they’re leaving their homes. Only 13 percent of immigrants from Central America — and just 4 percent of immigrants from Latin America as a whole — cite conflict or persecution as the main reason they came to the United States. Violence has plateaued or declined in many Central American nations, yet the number of asylum claims continues to surge.

Most of these asylum claims aren’t credible. Eighty percent are ultimately denied by U.S. immigration courts. But by claiming asylum, immigrants can stay in the country for years while their cases are adjudicated. Asylum applicants can even obtain temporary work permits if their cases drag on longer than six months.

Meanwhile, competition from illegal workers depresses wages for Americans and legal immigrants alike, especially ones at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole. Native-born Americans would earn roughly $120 billion more each year if there was no illegal immigration, according to research from Harvard economist George Borjas. The average high school dropout earns about $800 less each year due to competition from illegal laborers.

Federal officials could boost Americans’ wages, and humanely discourage people from undertaking the dangerous journey across the southern border, by making it harder for illegal workers to find jobs.

Thousands of employers already use the free, online E-Verify system to cross-check new employees’ mandatory I-9 forms against other government records such as driver’s licenses. In as little as five seconds, the system identifies whether a new hire is authorized to work in the United States. E-Verify approves about 99 percent of workers right away. The vast majority of the remaining 1 percent are accurately flagged as ineligible to work.

E-Verify is effective. A 2008 Arizona law mandating the use of E-Verify shrank illegal migration to that state, according to Carnegie Mellon University and University of Colorado Boulder researchers.

Requiring all employers to use E-Verify would drastically reduce illegal immigration. Unlike a multi-billion-dollar wall, the software is already available, free of charge.

Lawmakers should also plug the loopholes in our asylum system. People who sneak across the border should not be allowed to retroactively claim asylum after they’ve been caught. If people have legitimate asylum applications, they should file them at official ports of entry.

Sadly, until these reforms happen, the chaos at the border will only get worse.

Deena Flinchum is an IT worker who was employed by the AFL-CIO for 25 years before retiring. She is now a community volunteer in southwest Virginia.

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