Identity Crisis

If the government is serious about keeping illegal immigrants from working, a national ID card may be inevitable.

Last November, Republican Rep. Robert Dornan lost his Orange County, California, congressional seat by 984 votes. A former test pilot, actor, and talk show host nicknamed "B-1 Bob" could not be expected to step quietly into retirement. The day after the election, the fiery former presidential candidate called a press conference to charge his opponent, Loretta Sanchez, with stealing the election. He claimed there had been widespread voter fraud, that thousands of noncitizens had gone to the polls to support Sanchez.

Little did Dornan know that, in addition to sparking a fascinating congressional investigation, his case would expose fundamental weaknesses in one of the most sweeping programs regulating private employment decisions ever implemented by the federal government. The attempt to document his charges would show that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is not up to the task of making sure that new employees are legally authorized to work in this country. In fact, notwithstanding the reassurances of politicians who back such a verification program, any serious attempt to meet this goal will require some form of national ID card.

Dornan's supporters focused their attention on Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a company hired by the INS to help immigrants prepare for the citizenship test. The Hispanic advocacy group was paid to teach immigrants a few highlights of American history, explain how our government is organized, and drill them on practice tests. It also did something for which it was not paid: It registered the immigrants to vote. The evidence suggested that several hundred noncitizens may have voted in Dornan's district, the vast majority for Sanchez.

Dornan eagerly shared this discovery with his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, and the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation. Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) came up with a logical idea: Why not compare the INS's list of legal immigrants with the Orange County voter rolls? If more than 984 people appeared on both lists, a new election would be necessary. In late April, Thomas sent a letter to the INS requesting this information.

Thomas's letter put Clinton administration officials in an awkward position. They certainly did not want to assist an investigation that might overturn the election of a new ally, and they were especially reluctant to help a man perhaps best known for loudly challenging the president's integrity and patriotism. Administration officials were tempted to argue that inherent limitations in INS databases prevented them from assisting the investigation.

But claiming that INS databases were unreliable would jeopardize another Clinton administration priority: cracking down on illegal immigration. Under the administration's pilot "employment verification project," an employer who wants to hire someone claiming to be a legal immigrant types information about the applicant into a computer linked to the INS. The INS computer checks the name against its databases and electronically confirms whether or not the person is eligible to work. In other words, at the same time that Thomas was asking the INS to verify the immigration status of new voters, the administration was promoting a project that supposedly could verify the immigration status of new workers. Even more inconvenient was the fact that the project was being tested at several hundred companies in Dornan's congressional district.

After several weeks of stalling followed by congressional subpoenas, the administration finally settled on a strategy. On May 21, Thomas received a letter from INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, stating that the INS could not confirm the immigration status of new voters. "Since INS data have been assembled in many places over many years in different formats," Meissner wrote, "a simple electronic match will not produce completely reliable information."

She claimed developing a reliable list of ineligible voters would require INS employees to search both computer and paper files, a process that would take months. The list that Meissner attached to her letter, based on a preliminary review of INS records, was startling: Half a million Orange County voters appeared in the agency's records as noncitizens. A few days later, the INS produced a second list. When both first and last names, along with dates of birth, were matched, more than 18,000 people appeared to be both immigrants and voters. The figures were so ludicrous that Dornan could do little with them.

As if the letter were not embarrassing enough, the agency mistakenly addressed it to "William C. Thomas." As the committee chairman noted at a May 21 press conference, "My mother and father would be shocked, because they named me William Marshall Thomas....If they can't even get my name right, there is a degree of concern about the accuracy of the list."

But the Clinton administration was not about to admit that its employment verification project was a failure. In fact, the White House was preparing to expand the project dramatically. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a bill promoted by the administration and enacted by congressional Republicans desperate to prove they could govern in a bipartisan manner, requires the project to clear citizens as well as noncitizens. Accordingly, the administration is merging INS and Social Security system databases to create a worker registry--a list of all people who are authorized to work in this country. Armed with this new database, the administration is encouraging companies to make sure that prospective employees, citizens and noncitizens alike, are on the government's list before they begin work.

The law requires that the project be tested in five of the seven largest states. Given the number of people who change jobs or enter the labor force each year, it is likely that the expanded employment verification system will be used millions of times during the next few years. In September 2001, Congress will vote on whether the project should become a mandatory nationwide program. Unimpeded by the admission that INS databases are unreliable, the worker registry is steadily expanding.

The Dornan election challenge is not the first time the nascent national identification program has proven awkward for the Clinton administration. In February 1995, the White House called a meeting of skeptical advocacy groups to convince them of the wonders of electronic verification. A meeting at the White House is a rare privilege, so the representatives of the groups made sure they were in their assigned places at the scheduled time. A White House aide eventually took the podium to explain that Meissner was running late. Ten minutes passed, then 20. Finally, a harried Meissner appeared, a half hour after the meeting was supposed to begin. The activists later learned that the holdup was not a traffic jam or an urgent telephone call: Meissner had been stopped by White House security. It seems the INS commissioner, on her way to make a speech about the effectiveness of verifying a person's identity through a federal computer database, had been late because the White House computer security system would not accept her identification documents. Needless to say, the project gained few new supporters at the meeting.

Administration officials are not the only ones who've been put in uncomfortable situations by the employment verification project. During the House Judiciary Committee's deliberations on last year's immigration bill, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) introduced a proposal to give the Labor Department several hundred new wage-and-hour investigators. If more investigators were patrolling the nation's factories, he reasoned, there would be less exploitation of both legal and illegal workers. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) vehemently argued the standard conservative line: Government interference in American business has been destructive and must be curtailed. He suggested that Berman was just another liberal Democrat who didn't get the message of the 1994 elections. Smith's speech would have been more compelling had he not, only minutes earlier, convinced his colleagues to insert into the bill a plan to make every business in America obtain approval from a federal database before hiring new employees. Berman suggested that his colleague might want to let the ink dry on his national identification project before again decrying the federal government's size and influence.

As Republican supporters of a worker registry prepared their legislative strategy, the most ticklish problem was to avoid the dreaded "national ID card" label. They concluded that the government could reliably verify that people are who they say they are only by assigning everyone a unique and secure number. It would be logical and efficient to issue a card or document with the number printed on it. To guard against counterfeiting, the card would need to be encoded with biometric data such as a fingerprint, retina scan, voice pattern, or blood sample. But the sponsors of the immigration legislation could not admit this is where the law would lead.

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) took every opportunity to reassure the public: "A `national ID card' is not necessary, and I have always opposed such an approach." Rep. Smith took the same line: "I oppose a national ID card, and that is exactly why the legislation is written the way it is." Those who remained skeptical were told that they didn't need to take the sponsors' word for it; the legislation specifically prohibited the development of a national ID card. Section 404(h)(2) of the bill reads, "Nothing in this subtitle shall be construed to authorize, directly or indirectly, the issuance or use of national identification cards or the establishment of a national identification card."

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