Employment verification, ID rules could be a hard sell for immigration reform

Proposals for tamper-proof ID cards and electronic employment eligibility checks have been tried before

Mandatory employment eligibility verification and identity vetting requirements in recent proposals for comprehensive immigration reform could prove to be a tough sell to various groups that have opposed the measures in the past as being unworkable.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama outlined a five-point proposal that would put undocumented immigrants on a path to legal immigration status in the U.S. Under his proposal, undocumented people would get a chance at 'earned citizenship' as long as they register, submit biometric data and pass criminal and national security background checks.

The proposal also calls for a strengthening of border security, better enforcement of existing immigration and hiring laws, more streamlined legal immigration processes and green cards for foreign students who graduate with science and technology degrees.

The White House proposals are nearly identical to a bipartisan immigration framework outlined on Monday by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and several others.

One proposal likely to run into rough weather calls for mandatory e-verification of all new and existing hires. It would require all companies, except some small businesses, to use U.S. government databases to electronically verify the work status of employees. The mandatory verification would be phased in over five years and provides for significant penalties for those who don't use the system or commit identity fraud.

Both sets of proposals also mandate new non-forgeable and tamper-resistant Social Security cards as proof of authorization to work in the U.S.

In comments to Politico's Playbook earlier this week, McCain and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) vigorously supported the need for tamper-poof Social Security cards that include a biometric identifier like a fingerprint. ' "I'm for this," McCain told Politico. "I would like to remind you that the 9/11 Commission made a series of recommendations. One of three that was never implemented was this kind of identification that's required."

Similar proposals have been aired in the past and have failed. One example: the controversial Real ID Act of 2005, which sought to implement a nationwide standard for driver's licenses. That measure failed after a storm of opposition from rights groups, privacy advocates, lawmakers and even the Department of Homeland Security.

Privacy advocates and rights groups were worried that the system would result in the creation of a national ID card. Others worried that a national identity system would be hard to manage and even harder to secure. Many states refused to implement the law on the grounds that it was too expensive and impractical.

Similarly, the federal E-Verify System already provides a mechanism for employers to check the employment eligibility of workers against databases at the Social Security Administration and elsewhere. While government agencies are required to use it, private companies don't have to.

Several groups have advocated against making the system mandatory. They have argued that the database on which the system is based is filled with errors.

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have expressed concerned that requiring E-Verify would result in the creation of the largest ever database of sensitive personal information in the U.S. Even Obama himself last year described E-Verify as error-prone and said it could not be used as an immigration enforcement tool until problems were resolved.

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the ACLU, today reiterated concerns over the latest immigration proposals.

A tamper-resistant Social Security card with a biometric identifier is both expensive and impractical, Calabrese said. "We see this as being enormously costly," he said, arguing that implementation will be a challenge as well because it will require tens of millions of American workers to get fingerprinted and have their birth certificates vetted.

It's also inevitable that such a card will eventually become a "permission slip" that will be required not just for employment but for a myriad other purposes, Calabrese maintained.

Similarly, the problem with E-Verify continues to be its error rates, he added. Even with an error rate of just 1%, it generates far too many false results to be used on a mandatory basis, he said.

According to Calabrese, a more effective way to deal with illegal immigration is to enforce existing laws much better.

Meanwhile, other groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies, The Heritage Foundation and the Federation for American Immigration Reform have insisted that concerns about cost, privacy and errors are overblown. They insist that the number of workers being wrongly identified by E-Verify as being ineligible or eligible to work in the U.S. is a tiny fraction of the checks conducted each year by employers.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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