Immigration Experts Urge Congress to Be Cautious on Schumer Work ID Plan

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 21, 2009 8:05 PM

Immigration analysts urged Congress on Tuesday to carefully weigh a leading Democratic senator's plan to require all U.S. workers to verify their identity using fingerprints or digital photos, saying such an effort faces technological and political obstacles.

The warnings came as Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration, used a panel hearing to reveal new details of his proposal, which he said must be part of any broader immigration overhaul.

Schumer said a new national work identification system "must have the strictest privacy and civil liberties protections, and must only be used for employment," not other federal ID purposes. He was silent on whether the government would maintain a database of fingerprint or other biometric information on all workers, or if data could be locked into a portable card or other microchip-bearing device held by an individual.

"The only way to stop illegal immigration is to stop employers from hiring illegal immigrants," Schumer said. He added: "We must . . . adopt a system that relies upon objective, rather than subjective, criteria to prove identity and legal status. The system must be non-forgeable and airtight."

Schumer has said he is seeking support for broader legislation he plans to introduce this year that would create a path to legalization for an estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants. Lawmakers in both parties say such an effort must avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1986 immigration amnesty, which also banned the hiring of illegal immigrants but did not include effective tools to enforce the law.

Schumer called E-Verify, the government's existing system to check work documents against federal databases, "half-hearted and flawed" because the Internet-based system lacks safeguards against identity theft. He said calls to mandate all employers' participation in E-Verify, which is now a voluntary program, will increase the use of fake documents and false identities unless the system includes a new way to confirm workers' identities using unique biological markers.

About 137,000 of 7.4 million U.S. employers now participate in E-Verify, screening more than 14 percent of annual, non-agricultural hires. The system confirms about 97 percent of applicants, blocks the hiring of 2 percent who are illegally present and mistakenly rejects about 1 percent because of database errors, studies show.

However, analysts cautioned that a new work ID system based on fingerprints would face steep technical challenges and privacy concerns. On Monday, a prominent immigration think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, urged Congress to expand and improve E-Verify and to test a fingerprint ID system as one of several voluntary pilot programs, if it is going to require all employers to conduct electronic checks.

Voluntary trials would prevent the government from locking itself into an approach that doesn't work or becomes too costly, said Doris Meissner, a former director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and a senior fellow at the institute.

Marc R. Rosenblum, who co-authored the report with Meissner, said that even the best fingerprint-verification system would not do much good if a third of Americans refused to use it.

"For political reasons and from an enforcement perspective, it's attractive to make that the centerpiece of this verification system," Rosenblum said Tuesday. "But we don't want to delay immigration reform by making it a prerequisite to get a biometric system up and running. . . . And the costs of a biometric system -- both the financial cost and social cost -- are high enough that's it's not clear the enforcement benefits are going to be worth it."

Schumer's advisers are hoping to navigate the political obstacles. The senator described an enrollment process in which all U.S. workers -- citizens and noncitizens -- would undergo a check by a federal agency with access to public records and government databases.

Such a system, the senator added, should not require workers to pay for any additional checks. Employers who participate in the program should face minimal compliance costs and be shielded from any liability if they use it correctly, but face fines or prison time if they do not use it or repeatedly hire unauthorized workers, Schumer said.

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