An Electronic Solution to Illegal Immigration

Federal agents check the identification of a Swift meatpacking plant employee (in the white coat) during a raid in Hyrum, Utah, in 2006.
Federal agents check the identification of a Swift meatpacking plant employee (in the white coat) during a raid in Hyrum, Utah, in 2006. (By Meegan M. Reid -- Associated Press)
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By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Sunday, July 19, 2009

There comes a time when a nation has to bite the bullet. We have known since at least 1994, when the now-departed Barbara Jordan delivered a bipartisan immigration commission report to Congress, that the key to regain control over our broken immigration system is employer controls.

Arrests and border fences may have their roles, but so long as businesses offer jobs, legal forces will lose to economic ones. Foreign workers will find a way into the country.

Almost every expert in the contentious immigration debate agrees, and yet 15 years after the Jordan report, Republican business and libertarian leaders as well as Democratic unions and immigration activists have risen up with lawsuits and fierce lobbying against a decision by the Obama administration to institute the first real employment controls, called E-Verify.

The objections are many but minor, for it has really come to this: Some are making the perfect the enemy of the good; others will never find an enforcement scheme they like.

The stakes were made stark last week in a report by another bipartisan commission, this one in conjunction with the Council on Foreign Relations and chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Clinton White House chief of staff Mack McLarty. The immigration system is getting worse, it said, and concluded: "The continued failure to devise and implement a sound and sustainable immigration policy threatens to weaken America's economy, to jeopardize its diplomacy and to imperil its national security."

But nothing will work without employer controls. They were at the heart of what was to have been the grand bargain of the 1986 act passed under Ronald Reagan, in which amnesty was given to nearly 3 million unauthorized immigrants in exchange for enforcement that would stop illegal flows. Immigrants kept coming illegally and today number about 12 million. Fewer business owners are being punished for hiring them than were in the 1990s. Incredibly, between 2003 and 2008, only 85 employers were fined for hiring violations. No wonder many Americans feel had.

E-Verify is a simple enough solution. Employers electronically check job applicants with the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the names through Social Security, immigration and terrorism databases. The program has flaws but has been steadily improved since its introduction as a pilot program 13 years ago. Almost 97 percent of new hires are now cleared within minutes, according to the department. The remaining 3 percent require corrections in their government data or can't be hired.

The administration, picking up on the intentions of the Bush administration before it, will now take a voluntary program and make it mandatory for about 170,000 federal contractors. Many states are requiring the same. Meanwhile, about 134,000 of the nation's roughly 6 million employers are voluntarily participating. This might seem a small number, but they are signing up at a rate of 1,000 a week, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In total, the council reports, about one in eight new hires today is being checked by E-Verify. That's not small potatoes.

What the opponents fear is that the program will be made mandatory for all businesses. Their objections mostly have to do with the 3 percent of hires who don't clear immediately. Dealing with them is characterized as a bureaucratic impediment and a deterrent to hiring immigrants. Also, legal workers are included and can be unfairly denied a job.

Partly for those reasons, the administration says that E-Verify is not ready to be mandatory for all businesses. But the only way to perfect it is to use it. Requiring government contractors to do so is a good next step. Penalties remain weak, but prosecutions are up and workplace raids are now designed to collect evidence against employers instead of rounding up employees.

New and better technology is in the pipeline that would include biometric measures such as fingerprints and eye scans that protect against identity theft. But that may be years off and require new databases. The Social Security databases were never designed for enforcement controls. A week ago, the administration killed a program to send out notices on 9 million existing workers with problematic Social Security numbers.

The rational solution is a national identity card, which almost all other industrial countries have. The idea raises vehement opposition on the right and left, but we may go there through the back door as we create job cards, move toward universal health care and become ever more a part of massive information systems.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

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