Bringing the Border War Home

What will Americans pay to keep out immigrants?


In the national din over immigration, Lizbet Martinez's story barely rates a whisper. She's just a little girl, born in Cuba in 1983. Her mother was a dentist, her father a truck driver, and Lizbet was their first child. Like all new parents, Danne and Jorge Martinez found that having a child changed their lives in ways they couldn't have imagined before she was born. Sleeping through the night was a thing of the past. And a simple trip to the market suddenly required so much planning and preparation that it seemed like a military operation.

Yet it was only when Lizbet was old enough to go to school that the most profound change of all became obvious. Like many—probably most—Cubans, Lizbet's parents led double lives. At work, they dutifully chanted the praises of the Cuban Revolution and its all-powerful leader, Fidel Castro. But at home, behind closed doors, they cursed him for turning Cuba into an economic wasteland and political dead end, a country without a future.

That was fine when it was just the two of them. But now Lizbet would be leaving the house each day to sit in class with a teacher who owed his job to his membership in Cuba's Communist Party. What happened if the little girl repeated something she had heard at home? How long would it be until her parents were fired, or their ration cards were confiscated, or their house was seized, or they were summoned to the Ministry of the Interior for questioning?

So Jorge Martinez decided it was time for his daughter to hear the Cuban version of the birds and the bees. He sat down with her one afternoon a few days before she was to start the first grade. "You must never, ever say anything against Castro at school," he warned Lizbet, feeling a mixture of sadness and relief at the grave expression on her 6-year-old face. "And if the teacher seems to contradict something you've heard at home, just keep quiet. When you have questions, ask your mother or me—no one else." Most parents try to teach their children that lying is wrong. The Martinezes told their daughter that lies were the very foundations of their lives.

It was a difficult, dangerous thing that they were trying, but it seemed to work—in part because in Lizbet the Martinezes had been blessed with an uncommonly intelligent and poised child. Not only did she manage to stay out of trouble at school, but she flourished. Her grades were always the best, and her talent with the violin seemed almost supernatural. Word of her musical skill spread through Havana and even reached the ears of the Communist Party's arts commissars. Lizbet was made first violinist with the Havana youth symphony, even though it is mostly reserved for the children of high party officials.

Still, the Martinezes were unhappy. "We're corrupting her, the same way everything in Cuba is corrupt," Danne Martinez said to her husband. "Everyone here says one thing and does another, says one thing and thinks another. It's a sickness. And we're infecting our daughter."

So they decided to leave. Because Danne Martinez was a dentist, they would never get permission for one of the handful of legal visas to emigrate that the Cuban government hands out each year, mostly to the old or lame. Instead, Jorge Martinez began keeping his eye out for inner tubes at the trucking depot, slipping away with one whenever he could. And the Martinezes made sure that their daughter knew how to swim almost as well as she could play the violin. They waited, watching for their chance.

It came in August 1994. For reasons known only to himself, Fidel Castro relaxed the security patrols along the island's beaches. Word spread quickly on what the Cubans call radiobemba, lip radio: If you want to try to get out on a raft, no one will stop you. Dozens, then hundreds, of people flung themselves into the Caribbean on flimsy rafts, praying for a strong wind toward Florida.

"It's time," Jorge Martinez said to his wife. "It might be 10 years before we get another chance. And that would be too late for Lizbet."

Jorge and Danne thought no risk was too high to exchange the manacles of Cuba for the freedom of the United States. But they didn't believe they had the right to bet Lizbet's life without her consent. So that afternoon there was no violin practice. The family gathered around the kitchen table, and once again Jorge told his daughter the facts of life: On one hand, the high seas, the voracious sharks, the pitiless sun; on the other, a chance to go to a school where she could say anything she wanted.

When they were finished, 11-year-old Lizbet looked steadily at her parents and said: "I have been praying for this day." She went to her room and returned a moment later with her asthma inhaler, a Bible, and her violin. "I'm ready," she declared.

They left that night, on a fragile raft made of nine inner tubes, a few pieces of plywood, and a tarp, 181/2 feet long and 8 feet wide. Thirteen people crowded aboard as they pushed off a beach outside Havana. With eight oars, they paddled steadily for what they hoped was north, although within a few hours they were hopelessly confused about directions.

They were out there six days, huddling under the tarp to shield themselves from the maddening sun, clinging desperately to the raft as summer storms sent waves crashing overhead. Always they were scanning the horizon, hoping for the first flickering glimpse of the Florida coastline.

It was a couple of hours before dawn on August 22 when they saw the lights of the ship. "Too big to be the Cuban navy!" Jorge Martinez exclaimed, and they desperately signalled with a flashlight. In a few minutes, a small motorboat was lowered from the ship and buzzed toward them. Its deck lights illuminated a red, white, and blue flag fluttering in the breeze. Moments later the refugees were clambering aboard.

It took just a few minutes to make their way back to the big U.S. Coast Guard ship. As they stepped onto the deck, they were greeted by a smiling officer in gold braid. Lizbet couldn't understand the words he spoke, but they sounded good all the same. In Cuba, men in uniform were to be feared, but this man had rescued her family from the lonely sea. She wished she could speak English, even just a little bit, to thank him. Suddenly she had an idea. Handing her Bible to her mother, she popped open the latches on her violin case. And putting the instrument to her shoulder, she played a song that she had been practicing—softly, in a closed room, where no one could hear—for the past two years. She played "The Star Spangled Banner."

The captain's face crumpled in tears. All around the deck, uniformed Americans were crying. When she finished, they clapped and cheered, 50 men making a noise like 500. The captain sent for a crewman who spoke Spanish, and when he arrived, the captain spoke just one short sentence. "He says you have touched his heart," the sailor translated to Lizbet. The captain smiled and squeezed her hand.

Then he took her to a prison camp.

But who cares, really, about Lizbet Martinez? It's not like she has any rights. She's just another foreign kid, just another one of those "weird aliens with dubious habits" coming here probably to go on welfare or mug old ladies, as journalist and racial scientist Peter Brimelow is constantly warning us. (And Brimelow should know; he's a Brit, married to a Canadian.) Or, worse yet, one of those dangerous multiculturalist agents his Firing Line ally Arianna Huffington has alerted us to, bent on destroying the English language and abolishing Christmas in favor of Kwanzaa. (And Huffington should know; she's a Greek who came here from London.)

So let's not waste a lot of tears over Lizbet Martinez or any of her little Third World friends who've been jailed at Guantanamo. If they've suffered, it's been in a good cause—the preservation of an endangered species, Bill Clinton's electoral votes. Let's not freak out over the Romanian stowaways held in leg irons in New Jersey, or the Chinese women locked up for 14 months in a tiny hotel room at the Miami airport. We just don't have the time or the emotional capital to spend worrying about their freedom.

Because we have to worry about ours.

In the rush to repair all the supposed damage to our economy and culture done by those pernicious Accented People, the Brimelows and Huffingtons want us to declare war on immigration. And to fight it, they're asking for some heavy new legal weaponry.

Hundreds of millions of dollars to build a McNamara Line along the border with Mexico? Pocket change. The ability to seize businesses, and jail the owners, that employ the enemy? It's only fair. Forcing every American to carry a national ID card and submit to the whims of a computerized Federal Work Permit office? True patriots will be proud to do it.

And if some civilians get caught in the crossfire, well, war is hell. Remember what they used to say in Vietnam: Sometimes you've got to destroy the village in order to save it.

Does the military analogy seem strained? It shouldn't. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California advocates mobilizing National Guard troops and stationing them along the border with Mexico. And although that hasn't happened yet, the Border Patrol has been quietly militarizing the border. The canyons south of San Diego now bristle with high-tech surveillance devices supplied from the Pentagon, and patrolmen zip over the craggy terrain in surplus military vehicles. Even the metal fence that snakes 23 miles from the Pacific Ocean to Otay Mountain came out of a Pentagon store house: It's made of old portable landing strips that were used in Vietnam.

If that has any infelicitous connotations, they're lost on the Border Patrol agents themselves. "This stuff is great, and I can't tell you how happy we are to have it," says Bryant Brazley, a seven-year patrol veteran, as he stands on a cliff overlooking the aptly named Smuggler's Canyon. "We were trying to plug this border with chewing gum, hammers, nails, and bailing wire."

Not any more. Along with the new 12-foot-tall fence, there's a 4.5-mile strip of high-intensity stadium lights, backed in Kevlar to keep them from being shot out, their poles encased in metal girders to protect them from arsonists. There are half a dozen night vision scopes, $150,000 apiece, with more on the way. There are 222 new vehicles and two high-speed boats. There's an elaborate network of ground sensors to detect movement along the border; 300 encrypted radios to keep the patrol's transmissions secret from prying ears; a computerized fingerprint identification system that can tell if a captured immigrant has been stopped before. Not to mention 200 new agents.

This is all part of what the Border Patrol calls Operation Gatekeeper, one of three high-intensity efforts to shut down sectors of the Mexican border. (The others are Operation Hold-The-Line in El Paso and Operation Safeguard south of Tucson.) How much it all costs is difficult to ferret out of Immigration and Naturalization Service budget documents, but it isn't cheap: Construction costs in the San Diego area alone will amount to $22 million during this fiscal year. Overall, the INS enforcement budget has grown from $933 million in fiscal 1993 to an expected $1.7 billion in fiscal 1996. What else is hidden in the Pentagon's budget, or the Justice Department's (Janet Reno is adding 65 more federal prosecutors to her staff, just to go after immigrant smugglers on the Mexican border), is anyone's guess.

There's no question that Operation Gatekeeper has salved the pride of harried Border Patrol agents like Brazley. "The Mexicans used to mass in a soccer field near the Chula Vista station, just east of San Ysidro," he recalls. "And then at dusk, they'd rush us. Hundreds of them, and we could catch maybe two or three. What kind of offended our dignity was that the soccer field itself was on the U.S. side of the border. So sometimes a couple of agents would drive over there as they were massing and tell them to at least do that on the Mexican side. And they'd just grab the vehicle and start rocking it back and forth, threatening to tip it over. You had to be a tough guy or gal to work the border here then."

The infamous soccer field was one of the first casualties of Operation Gatekeeper, annihilated by National Guard bulldozers. But aside from preserving Border Patrol dignity, it's hard to say just what we've gotten for all the money. During the first seven months of Operation Gatekeeper, apprehensions of illegal immigrants around San Diego were up 6.2 percent, to 331,000. Does that really mean 19,000 Mexicans were stopped from entering the United States? Or does it mean that 9,500 Mexicans were stopped twice before eluding the Border Patrol on their third try? Consult your Ouija board for an answer.

But we do know a couple of things for sure. One is that a few weeks into Operation Gatekeeper there was an explosive growth in illegal immigrant traffic in Arizona. Even without any additional enforcement measures, Border Patrol apprehensions around Tucson jumped 50 percent. (That's why Operation Safeguard was set up in Arizona on January 1.) The immigrant flow is like a balloon; squeeze it in one place and it pops up in another.

We also know this: Despite America's national angst over the Mexican border, less than half of what most people think of as illegal aliens actually use it to enter the United States. Though the INS likes to terrorize the folks in Des Moines by speaking darkly of a million illegal border crossings a year, when pressed, officials will admit that most of those people eat a hamburger in San Diego or visit a shopping mall in El Paso and are back home by nightfall. (When Operation Hold-The-Line started in September 1993, the loudest complaints came not from Mexican nationalists or American civil libertarians, but from El Paso merchants. The drop in their sales was dramatic.)

The most widely accepted estimate of illegal immigrants who come to stay is about 300,000 a year. Roughly half of those enter the United States on legal visas as tourists or students, for instance and then stay. Another 5,000 or so cross through Canada, sneak into Puerto Rico, or enter via sea. So even if we gave the Border Patrol the billions of dollars it would cost to extend Operation Gatekeeper across every inch of the 2,000-mile Mexican border, and even if it succeeded in stopping 100 percent of the immigrants, at least 155,000 illegal aliens a year would still be getting into the United States.

And yet another thing we know: The border controls wouldn't be 100 percent effective. "It's enormously hard to control a border," observes Annelise Anderson, a former associate director of the Office for Management and Budget. Now a scholar at the Hoover Institution, she has studied immigration extensively. "The classic case is East Germany. They fortified their border with dogs, barbed wire, search lights, land mines, and really mean guards who shot to kill.

"And people came anyway. They dug holes and tunnels and smuggled themselves in vehicles. They kept coming, and lots and lots of them succeeded….People who want to cross borders are very determined. It's really hard to shut them off."

This is not exactly news to Border Patrol agents, many of whom have mixed feelings about arresting people whose only crime is wanting a job. Though they dutifully swear to the effectiveness of Operation Gatekeeper, they do not pretend that they can close down the entire Mexican border. "We know we're not the solution," says Brazley. "We know the answer doesn't lie with the Border Patrol."

As he speaks, Brazley is standing in Goat Canyon, another of the border's busy spots. Mexico's Highway 1 is on the other side. All day long buses from the country's interior stop there, discharging passengers. They use a pedestrian overpass to cross the highway and then scramble down a dirt embankment to a clearing just a few hundred feet from the border. There they sit and wait for the cover of dusk before slipping into the United States.

While they wait, they can buy tacos, chimichangas, coffee, and soft drinks from a woman who sets up a vending stand each day. Originally she arrived on the bus herself, but business is so good that she's been able to buy a truck. And often she has to bring her two children to help with all the cooking. Eleven months into Operation Gatekeeper, she's still there.

Well, then, if we can't fight these invaders on the beaches, how about in the fields and in the streets? If they're coming here for jobs, let's go after the people who are giving them jobs. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 already makes it illegal to employ undocumented aliens to the tune of $10,000 apiece, but that's kind of a pipsqueak penalty for what amounts to lending aid and comfort to the enemy. What we need is a law with fangs—say, the right to seize the assets of businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

In February, after an immigration war council with Janet Reno, Labor Secretary Robert Reich, INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, and several Border Patrol officials, President Clinton hinted that he'll eventually ask Congress for an asset-seizure law. He made it sound quite reasonable: "If we turn off the employment stream for illegal workers, far, far fewer of them will risk the difficult journey here."

But why wait? Isn't this an emergency? It's a time for men of action like California's Joe Baca, a Democratic state assemblyman from San Bernardino. He introduced a bill that would not only seize the assets of businesses that employ illegal immigrants, but put their owners in prison for up to four years.

"We wanted to address illegal immigration, and do it in a way that was not an attack on the immigrants themselves, the way Proposition 187 is," explains one of Baca's aides, Eloy Garcia. (Garcia's statement, incidentally, shows why liberals who purport to be defending immigrants are actually often their worst enemies. Taking jobs away from immigrants is not an attack; taking their welfare benefits, as Proposition 187 seeks to do, is. Surely Peter Brimelow couldn't have expressed it more artfully himself.)

What Garcia means is, his boss is willing to attack the rest of us. Because "employer" doesn't just refer to the sweaty garment factories along Skid Row in Los Angeles, or the garlic fields around Gilroy. Kathleen Beasley, a California state government policy analyst, recognized the peril instantly when she heard about the bill.

"The guy who mows my lawn—I've never asked to see that guy's credentials. It never occurred to me to ask," she muses. "But I do pay him $65 a month. He doesn't speak very good English, and now that I'm thinking about it, maybe he wasn't born in the United States. Should I ask?

"I've never asked my accountant, either, where he's from. As it happens, I'm pretty sure he's an American. But suppose I had just used the yellow pages to find an accountant, and the one who answered the phone spoke with a heavy accent. Should I ask to see his driver's license and his Social Security card? If this bill passes, would I be risking going to jail and having my home and all my money seized?"

Could be. In fact, Beasley's best defense against prison time would probably be that she's unlikely ever to repeat the crime, seeing as how she would no longer have a bank account or a house. Because state regulatory authorities react to a whiff of cash much the way piranha fish do to the taste of blood: They sink their teeth into the nearest living flesh and strip it to the bone. One reason, of course, is that it's lucrative, a way for agencies to expand their budgets without a lot of whining from spoil-sport taxpayers. Another is that it's easy.

Because asset forfeitures are defined as civil, not criminal, penalties, the authorities can brush aside all that troublesome innocent-until-proven-guilty stuff. Seizures could be made on the mere suspicion that you hired Rosarita to tend your kids without checking her work papers; then, in court, it will be your job to prove that you did. Of course, Rosarita might have been deported back to El Salvador by then and unable to corroborate your story that she showed a fake Social Security card. Don't expect the judge to be understanding. In a 1987 Missouri case that's all too typical of the genre, a woman's car was seized after her boyfriend drove it to the site of a cocaine deal. The judge agreed that the woman "was unaware of and uninvolved in" the drug buy, but he said the cops could keep the car anyway. Playing under those rules, it's no wonder that there have been hundreds of thousands of seizures netting more than $3.5 billion under federal law alone over the past 10 years.

To say that the California business community is dismayed about the Baca bill is an understatement of epic proportions. "It's cockamamie," says Ruben Jauregui, the managing partner of a Los Angeles CPA firm. "It's against everything this country stands for."

About 20 people work in Jauregui's office, which he calls "a little United Nations." His staff includes natives of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, South Korea, Switzerland, Venezuela, Mexico, and Chile. Each one of them is required to fill out an INS I-9 form, attesting to his eligibility to work in the United States. Then each one has to show Jauregui a document to verify that eligibility.

"There are about 30 types of documents they can use to satisfy the I-9, and then there are subsets of those types that include dozens and dozens of other documents," Jauregui notes. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you that we have a litmus test for each one, that we can authenticate each one. There's no way."

Indeed, an employer not only has to be able to tell the difference between all kinds of arcane INS permits, from the I-94 form to the I-551 stamp, but among literally hundreds of documents generated by other state, local, and federal authorities. Do you know what a Kentucky driver's license is supposed to look like? How about a South Dakota voter registration card? A Hopi Indian tribal document? A U.S. Coast Guard merchant mariner card? A Virgin Islands birth certificate? A Tucumcari, New Mexico, school district ID card? A patient record from the Norton Sound Health Corporation hospital in Nome, Alaska? All those and many, many more are on the list of documents that employers must accept.

"It is just overwhelming for many employers to have to inspect these documents," says Matthew Bartosiak, a senior consultant with the Employers Group, a nonprofit association that assists California companies with personnel issues. "You almost have to be an immigration attorney to have a full understanding of all these documents. You have people walking in every day, all day long, with different documents with different expiration dates and different conditions attached to them. They are seemingly endless. The INS issues a booklet with samples of some—but it's far from all of them. And the booklet is printed in black and white, which is not very helpful when you're dealing with color documents.

"Employers are required by law not to knowingly hire people with fraudulent documents. And on the other hand they have to be careful not to discriminate against anyone, or they're vulnerable to a lawsuit….They're told, Be particular, but not too particular—don't discriminate. It's a very thin line employers are always walking, a very tough line. And employers are not documentation specialists."

This paper tower of Babel makes it easy for well-intentioned employers to find themselves mired in a legal mess that is costly even under the existing law. Just ask Laurie.

Laurie—because she still has legal action pending, she doesn't want her real name used—owns a Mexican restaurant in a small, rural town in the Northeast. One day last year, just as the lunch rush was beginning, a half-dozen INS agents showed up and sealed all the exits. Then they worked their way through the restaurant, demanding identification from all 15 employees.

"It infuriated me," she recalls. "They acted like a bunch of Gestapo people, standing at the doors like that. In a little town like this it doesn't take much to catch everybody's attention, and I felt like I was being branded a criminal. Every time I asked them what my rights were, they just ignored me. It didn't take me long to figure out that what my rights were, were none."

Eventually the agents arrested five Mexican employees—the manager, assistant manager, two of the three cooks, and a waiter. All five had shown what looked to Laurie like legitimate papers. And the INS agreed it wasn't her fault; she wasn't charged with anything connected to the five illegals.

"But then they started going through my files on the other workers," she says. "The rest were all Americans, every single one of them born here. But every time the INS found one little thing wrong, an i not dotted or a t not crossed, that was a $275 fine. When they were done, it was $8,000.

"Listen, I run a small restaurant in a small town. This is no joke to me. That amounts to eight to 10 days' receipts for me. And the fine itself is only part of it. I lost about a month's worth of business, because we could hardly function with a third of the staff gone in the blink of an eye. There isn't another Mexican living within a hundred miles of here, so I had to fly one cook in from Sacramento and another from El Paso. Even then business was slow while we trained everybody. And I had to travel a couple of hundred miles to hire a $250-an-hour immigration attorney to plead my case. It's crazy! A little person like me, paying an attorney $250 an hour. In the end, this is going to cost me $50,000, and I'll be lucky if the restaurant is still open."

Immigration lawyers say this refrain is drearily familiar. "I'm representing an employer now whose net income last year was $13,000," says San Diego attorney Peter Larrabee. "It's a little mom-and-pop bakery that makes tortillas for Mexican restaurants. The INS wants to fine them $7,800." The acid conclusion of Larrabee, himself a former INS official: "When you get right down to it, employers are just a cash cow for the Immigration and Naturalization Service."

OK, maybe it's just a teeny, tiny bit unfair to throw somebody in jail and seize their property just because they got fooled by a phony Delaware driver's license. But the solution to that seems simple enough: We'll make it simpler for employers by reducing the number of acceptable documents and making them easier to verify.

For instance, why can't an employer just call the INS and ask if an immigrant is eligible to work? In these days of computerized databases, that shouldn't be so hard to rig up.

That very thought has occurred, more than once, in Washington. In 1992, the INS conducted an experiment with telephone verification at nine companies scattered around the country, ranging from the little Modern Italian Bakery in Oakdale, New York, to the giant Houston-based construction firm Brown and Root.

Each company paid $775 for what the INS called a "point-of-sale device," a little computerized gizmo that attaches to a telephone, closely resembling the thing merchants use to verify credit card numbers. Anytime an immigrant applied for a job at any of the nine companies, his name, birth date, and alien registration number were punched into the device, which relayed them to an INS computer in Washington. In a moment, the computer popped back with a message authorizing employment.

That was the theory, anyway. The reality was that 28 percent of the time, the INS computer could find no record of the immigrant and ordered the employer to send in the name on paperwork so that a clerk could search the records by hand—a process that took up to two weeks for each request. Two-thirds of those cyberspasms turned out to be caused by keypunch errors or missing INS files, not immigrants sneaking into the country without INS approval. Ultimately, only about 9 percent of the immigrants were ruled ineligible to work. That means there were 19 percent who were eligible but who had to wait, along with their employers, while INS clerks rummaged through their files.

An 81 percent success rate is pretty good if you're shooting basketball free throws. It's abysmally low when you're playing with people's lives. (And the error rate doesn't even count the caprices of the INS computer. One day, for instance, it simply refused to consider any first name beginning with the letter Z.) But the Clinton administration was so delighted with the telephone verification program that it is expanding it to 1,000 companies.

What's truly amazing about this is that, quite aside from the high error rate, the telephone verification system has a colossal loophole that makes it utterly useless: It depends on a job applicant confessing that he's a resident alien. All an illegal immigrant has to do is lie and say he's an American citizen; then his name is never submitted to the computer.

Well, then, why not link the INS computers with the Social Security Administration's and verify everybody's name, regardless of citizenship? It still won't work. "What if I walk in and give my mother's Social Security number, or a friend's, or one I buy from somebody on the street?" asks Cecilia Muñoz, senior immigration policy analyst of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino lobbying group. "You can't just have a phone-in system without some way to prove a person's identification. And the way to do that is with a card."

A card. It sounds so benign. You might call it, as California Sen. Dianne Feinstein does, a "machine-readable card that all job and benefits applicants would be required to present to verify their work or eligibility for assistance." Or you could call it a national ID card and work permit, because that's what it is. Or you might just want to call it a passport to hell, because for a lot of us, that's what it will be. At the very least it will put every American's right to earn a living at the mercy of the federal government's whimsical computers. And at the very worst—which, history teaches us, we have every right to expect—it will be a brutally effective tool for the surveillance, manipulation, and punishment of anyone who runs afoul of Washington's imperious corps of social engineers.

Nearly all the anti-immigration warriors, from Peter Brimelow to Rep. Barney Frank, favor a national ID card. There are various proposals for the form a card might take, but the most chic around Washington is the one proposed by Feinstein.

Feinstein's ID would look very similar to a credit card, with a strip of magnetic tape across the back. Encoded on the tape, along with your Social Security number, is your thumbprint. A potential employer inserts your card in a computerized reader, then asks you to put your thumb on an optical scanner. The computer compares your thumb to the print on the card, and, if everything's kosher, it phones a Social Security/INS computer in Washington, which decides whether you're eligible for a job. The fingerprint stuff may sound a little science fictionish, but the scanning equipment is already being commercially marketed. (The price, though, may read like science fiction to many of the small businesses required to buy the scanner-readers: $2,000 apiece.)

Feinstein says this process will be "fraud-resistant" and "counterfeit-resistant." Perhaps this claim is best evaluated by a professional fraud and counterfeiter.

"There really is nothing you can make that's 100 percent tamper-proof or 100 percent fraud-proof," says Frank Abagnale. "That's one of the reasons I don't think there will ever be a national ID card. We don't even have very good money. It's the worst currency in the world, printed with technology that's 75 years old. It's pathetically easy to counterfeit. I don't see how the government can come out with a secure ID when it can't even come up with a good dollar bill."

Abagnale speaks with some authority on the subject of counterfeiting: A boy wonder of the world of bunko, he forged $2.5 million in checks by the time he was 25, passing phony paper in 26 different countries. Two decades ago, he went straight and began working as a secure-document consultant. He designed the American Express Official Check, the company's version of a cashier's check, and the Clinton administration consulted with him on its doomed national health card.

"In California, they spent a fortune on their new driver's licenses," the Tulsa-based Abagnale observes. "They put holograms in them, used sophisticated sealants in the printing, just poured money into the design. And a few months after it was introduced, they arrested a forger with 50 licenses in 50 different names. I told them, All you've done is stop some kid from changing the birthdate on his license in order to buy a beer."

The anecdote about the driver's license is telling, because it leads to the unlocked back door into the national ID card: the ease with which all the "feeder documents"—the documents from which any federal verification database will be drawn—can be forged.

"Look, I designed the state of Florida's birth certificate," says Abagnale. "It's got a street price in Miami of $5,000, so it's obviously a very valuable document. But it's still ridiculously easy to defeat all the security I put into it. I'll tell you how. A forger comes to Miami, goes to the Bureau of Vital Statistics and asks to see the death records for 1948. They'll let him view them in the office. He picks out an infant who died at birth and copies down all the information it's got there—the mother's name, the father's, the time of birth, all that stuff.

"Then he walks right down the hall to another office where he can apply for a certified copy of the birth certificate. All he has to do to get it is to pay $5.00. And once he has that, he goes across town to a Motor Vehicle Department office and gets a driver's license in the name of the baby on the birth certificate. And with a driver's license, he can apply for all kinds of documents. For just 50 bucks, you can create 10 different identities for yourself in just a couple of days."

"I don't think people understand how many loopholes will be built into any attempt to create a national ID card," says immigration attorney Larrabee. "It has to do with the way our government is structured, federal rights versus states' rights. We have no federal birth card. Every state registers births differently, and none of them has ever made security a high priority.

"Birth certificates in Texas, for instance, were not even centrally registered until 1948. And even then it was done in a pretty slipshod way. Any birth reported to the state was just written in a big ledger book, without requiring any doctor's signature or anything."

Not that federal records are much more reliable. Until 1972, the Social Security Administration would take an applicant's word about his age and identity when issuing cards. In 1991, Gwendolyn King, the agency's commissioner, testified to Congress that more than 60 percent of Social Security numbers were based on unverified statements. "That, of course, means that the Social Security number simply cannot be used effectively as a means of identification," she added.

The only ones likely to find a national ID card a significant obstacle to working will be honest people who become accidentally snarled in red tape. And there are likely to be a lot of them. The card will depend heavily on INS records to establish work eligibility—records that, a 1989 Justice Department audit found, are incorrect 17 percent of the time. And a lot of people think that figure is way too low.

"The databases were not very good when I worked for the INS, and they're worse now," says attorney Larrabee. "I'd say they're wrong 50 percent of the time, and that's being generous." In one recent case, Larrabee represented a San Diego sock factory where the INS claimed to have found 15 illegal aliens working. But it turned out that nine had legal work permits, and two weren't even aliens—they were U.S. citizens. "I've had several other clients who experience 50 percent or greater error at the hands of the INS," he adds.

Because the victims of INS screw-ups are typically foreigners at the bottom end of the economic food chain, we hear little about them. But that will certainly change when the national ID card comes on line. A GAO study in 1988 showed that about 65 million people in the United States change jobs or enter the work force each year. Let's suppose that somehow the INS, through a superhuman effort that defies all our previous experience with federal bureaucracy, whittles its error rate down to a minuscule 1 percent. That's 650,000 people thrown out of work by mistake every year. The vast majority of them are bound to be U.S. citizens, native-born and bred.

Of course, they'll get their jobs back. Eventually. When the computer goofed during the 1992 test of the telephone verification system, it took the INS up to two weeks to search a job applicant's file by hand. And that was dealing with 2,668 searches over the course of a year. How long will the searches take when there are 650,000 a year? Six weeks? A month? Two months? And while the unlucky victim of the computer is waiting, who will pay his rent and buy his groceries? Perhaps the Feinsteins and Brimelows will show an unexpected humanitarian streak and permit workers bounced by the computer to start working while their cases are investigated. But that will force companies to invest weeks or months in training employees who may not even be eligible to work.

There's another number tucked away in the footnotes of the telephone verification system study that is worth thinking about. A full nine months after the study was over, the fine print admitted that four cases were still "pending." These were four people ruled ineligible to work who protested that they had the proper documents. As the study noted parenthetically, "employee is waiting for appointment with INS, awaiting further documentation, etc." That is, they were tethered to the ninth circle of bureaucratic hell.

"We're talking here about allowing a federal bureaucracy to decide whether people are entitled to have jobs," notes Jauregui, the accountant. "For a lot of people it's just going to be a nightmare. There was a story in The Washington Post a couple of weeks ago about ITT-Gillfin, which got overpaid almost eight million bucks on a federal contract. Right away the company said it had been overpaid and tried to give the money back. But the government insisted it was right. It took 15 months before ITT-Gillfin could get them to accept the check.

"So that's how promptly the federal government acts when a major U.S. corporation is trying to give it money. How do you think it will do when Jose Sanchez from East L.A. says he's been incorrectly denied a work permit? Give me a break!"

"The really horrible thing about this is that what we're talking about here with the 650,000 is a really optimistic scenario—an unrealistically optimistic scenario," observes John Miller of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a pro-immigration think tank. "Imagine a 5 percent scenario and you're up to 3.25 million people thrown out of work. Or a 10 percent scenario, with 6.5 million out of work. Either of those is probably more likely.

"The estimates of the illegal immigrant population of the United States run between 3 million and 4 million, out of a U.S. population of 260 million. That means maybe 1.5 percent of the U.S. population is illegal. Because of the actions of 1.5 percent of the population, suddenly the federal government has to monitor all the employment decisions made in this country? Doesn't that seem like a classic example of overreach?"

Well maybe not to some people. "There have always been people in government who are attracted by the idea of a national ID card," says the Hoover Institution's Anderson. "It's potentially usable for so many purposes that it gives the government a good deal of power over its citizens. One of the protections we have against invasive government power is its inability to keep track of us in every single thing we do. But a national ID card, coupled with computerized databases, removes that protection. And to some parts of the government, that is the very thing that makes it attractive."

Naturally, the proponents of the card resent the implication that there's anything sinister about the idea. "It is not carried on the person, it is not an internal passport, it is not used for law enforcement," Wyoming's Sen. Alan Simpson, the card's staunchest advocate, once snapped during a debate with Anderson. "It is presented at the time of new hire, and not just by people who look foreign, but by everyone. And it will say on it, I'm authorized to work in the United States of America—that's it."

But you don't need to be a paranoid survivalist huddled in an Idaho cave to have doubts about that. It's not that a federal administrator will call a press conference to announce, "We've decided to use the national ID card to practice fascist repression against all Americans." Instead, the first exceptions to the nothing-but-employment rule will come for some purpose that everybody agrees is beneficent: say, tracking welfare applicants to make sure they aren't collecting benefits from more than one office.

Then somebody else will propose that the card be used to hunt down deadbeat dads. And how about for keeping guns out of the hands of convicted felons? Tracking prescriptions of narcotics? Tracing people with sexually transmitted diseases? And from there—"welfare cheats, tax cheats, pedophiles, terrorists, you name it, whatever you happen to be looking for today," predicts Robert Gellman, a privacy and information policy consultant who was formerly chief counsel to the House Subcommittee on Government Information.

"Eventually, it will be used as an internal passport," he continues. "Next time there's an Oklahoma City bombing, you think they wouldn't ask everyone to provide their ID card? There may be rules against it. But whatever rules are made can be changed. It's very easy to do. All you do is pass another law."

When the government stockpiles information, no matter how benign the intent, there is inevitably a malignant mutation somewhere along the way. Presidential misuse of the Internal Revenue Service is so routine that it's practically part of the job description. Herbert Hoover raided IRS records for information on his conservative critics at the Navy League. Franklin Roosevelt used them against Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin. The Nixon administration pulled so many IRS files that White House staffers called it "the lending library." What's the big deal? asked Vernon Acree, the IRS official who sent the files over to the White House. We did the same thing for Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson.

Even the supposedly apolitical head counters at the U.S. Census Bureau have been unable to keep their promises not to share their most intimate data with anyone else. During World War I, the Census Bureau provided the Justice Department with names and addresses of conscription-age young men to aid in the apprehension of draft dodgers.

And in an even more infamous case, it helped carry out the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Each time a roundup of Japanese was planned in a new city, Census Bureau statisticians joined the meeting. They "would lay out on a table various city blocks where the Japanese lived and they would tell me how many were living in each block," recounted Tom Clark, the Justice Department's coordinator of alien control at the time. (Clark, later a Supreme Court justice, gave his account in an oral history for the University of California.) From there it was a simple matter for the U.S. Army to conduct block-by-block sweeps until all the Japanese were safely penned up in barbed wire.

Consider also the willy-nilly growth of the Social Security number. When the numbers were created in 1935, they were supposed to be used for one thing only: to record individual workers' payments into the Social Security system. Eight years later, Franklin Roosevelt decided all new federal record-keeping would be based on the numbers. In 1962, the IRS adopted them as taxpayer identification numbers. And after Congress permitted states to use the numbers for welfare payments and driver's licenses in 1976, they mushroomed: food stamps, school lunches, federal loans, even blood donations required Social Security numbers. These days it's almost impossible to open a bank account or hook up your telephone without one.

Like the Social Security number, the national ID card will spread into the private sector. At some point it will surely be proposed that credit histories be made a part of the computer dossier that's attached to the card—mind you, just for use if someone applies for a federal loan. And soon after that, banks will start demanding that their loan applicants sign a waiver permitting access to the files. Attorneys pressing employment discrimination lawsuits will clamor for the hiring records of every firm in the country, and woe to the company without a statistically correct percentage of left-handed black lesbians in its workforce.

For all the mischief that the private sector may create with the card, the real danger will still lie with the government. Because the card will double as a work permit, the government will have a truly unprecedented power to punish those it decrees anti-social. With a single keystroke, it can instantly destroy their ability to earn a living. How long before Janet Reno proposes two years without the right to work for anyone convicted of wife beating? Or "hate speech"? Or owning an "assault weapon"? And when Pat Buchanan is president, what kind of suspension of the work permit do you think he'll want for violation of the sodomy laws? Or flag burning? How long before both parties agree that Americans should have to pass drug tests to obtain, and annually renew, their right to work?

The campaign for a national ID card is not new. It first got serious consideration early in the Reagan administration, when Attorney General William French Smith suggested it during a Cabinet meeting. At first there were murmurs of assent. Then presidential assistant Martin Anderson (husband of Annelise) spoke up.

"Mr. President, I would like to suggest another way that I think is a lot better," he counseled. "It's a lot cheaper. It can't be counterfeited. It's very lightweight, and impossible to lose. It's even waterproof. All we have to do is tattoo an identification number on the inside of everybody's arm."

Reagan snorted. "Maybe we should just brand all the babies," he jibed.

The idea was never again taken seriously. Until now.

At press time, two immigration-control bills were pending approval of the judiciary committees in Congress. Sen. Alan Simpson's bill (S 269) would require all parents to have their children fingerprinted by the federal government and force everyone older than 16 to submit fingerprints or other "biometric" data to be used on a new federal birth certificate (which would become a de facto national ID card); S 269 would also force each person crossing the border by land to pay $1.00 tax per crossing.

Rep. Lamar Smith's bill (HR 1915) would expand civil-forfeiture law, allowing the federal government to seize the assets of illegal immigrants, those suspected of hiring illegals, and anyone using or creating false immigration documents; add 1,000 new border guards for each of the next five years; and reduce the number of immigrants who can enter legally by about one-third, to 535,000 a year. An amendment offered by Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) would require a "hardened, tamperproof Social Security card" including "a photograph, hologram, biometric identifier, and such other technology as is available to make the card as secure against tampering and counterfeiting as is feasible."

Both bills would establish a national worker registry, linking the databases of the Social Security Administration and the INS; reduce the number of refugees who could enter the country each year to 50,000, about half the number who enter now; and expand the ability of government agents to wiretap suspected employers or smugglers of undocumented workers.

Maybe picturing our brave new life with a national ID card makes it a little easier to imagine the Martinez family's life in Cuba. Or, for that matter, after Cuba. The U.S. Coast Guard ship that plucked Lizbet and her parents from the ocean took them to a prison camp on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. They had plenty of company: 25,000 other men, women, and children whose only crime was fleeing communist tyranny. (In other camps nearby were several thousand Haitians who were picked up as they bolted from their island's nightmarish violence and grinding poverty.) The Martinezes lived in a sweltering canvas tent in the middle of a dusty field that turned instantly into a sea of mud at the first drop of rain.

Though most of the refugees were young and able bodied—who else would try to float to the United States on a raft?—there was no work. Nothing to do but lie on their cots in the heavy tropical heat and dream of how close they'd gotten to Florida. In many ways, nothing had changed for these refugees except the flag flying overhead.

It wasn't long before they were plotting escapes, just as they had plotted escapes from Castro. Some of the men even went to the base commander and asked if they could build rafts in an attempt to float to Haiti. He just gave them a funny look. Others were more creative. When radiobemba spread the word that pregnant women would be moved to Miami, because the camp's hospital tent wasn't equipped to handle childbirth, a wave of romance flashed through the camps, and suddenly maternity clothes turned high fashion.

For men, there was a medical loophole, too, but a grim one. Any refugee with an illness or injury too grave for the base doctors to treat was put on a plane for Miami. Soon the hospital tent was flooded with cases of accidental puncture wounds and broken bones. Some men injected themselves with cooking oil, creating grotesque infections that, in at least one case, led to the loss of a leg. The bravest—or looniest, take your pick—souls of all were those who squirted Tabasco sauce from the military-provided "meals ready to eat" up their rectums to aggravate their hemorrhoids to emergency levels.

The Martinezes didn't try anything like that. But Lizbet had caught a mild fever at sea, one that she couldn't shake, and after a few days Jorge took her over to the hospital tent. As they waited, several other children came in, just taken from rafts in various states of dehydration and malnutrition. "Their parents must have been crazy," one of the doctors stormed as he moved around among the shriveled, sunburned little bodies.

"Excuse me," interrupted Jorge Martinez. "But we're not crazy. One parent—if one parent did this, he might have been crazy. But there are 3,000 families with children here. Do you think all 6,000 parents could be crazy? We're just trying to give our kids a future in liberty."

The Martinezes' "crazy" gamble on Lizbet's future eventually worked. After the Clinton administration belatedly decided prison camps were no place for children, a slow, steady trickle of families began arriving in Miami from Guantanamo. Five months after they were picked up at sea, Lizbet Martinez and her parents reached the United States. They're doing well. Lizbet already speaks English pretty well, her grades are all As, and she's been invited to play violin with the Greater Miami Symphony Orchestra a couple of times. Her mom is studying to pass the American dental boards. At night the whole family huddles over Lizbet's schoolbooks, passing an English dictionary back and forth, puzzling out the mysteries of this new country of theirs.

Pretty soon now, they'll be joined by all the friends they made in the camp. Military commanders at Guantanamo convinced Clinton that trying to detain 20,000 refugees in the camps indefinitely was a sure prescription for riots. By the end of the year, they'll all be resettled in the United States. The flip side of the decision: Instead of taking captured Cuban rafters to Guantanamo, the Coast Guard will hand them back over to Castro. Who has given his solemn promise that nothing will happen to them.

The Martinez family, acutely aware of the precarious status of immigrants in the United States these days, doesn't like to talk politics. But there is no trace of guile or irony in Lizbet's voice when she says that she'd like to send her thanks to President Clinton.

"It is very generous of him to let us come here," she says. "He didn't have to do it. On the boat, when I played 'The Star Spangled Banner,' I didn't know they were going to take us to Guantanamo. We hadn't heard anything about that yet. But even if I had known, I would still have played it. I felt so happy, seeing that boat coming toward our raft. For some people it would be nothing. But for us, it was like being born again. Going to Guantanamo was rough, but we knew we had to pay a price for liberty."

Lizbet and her family knew just how precious freedom really is. The question is, do we?

Contributing Editor Glenn Garvin's latest book, Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison, co-authored with Ana Rodriguez, was published in June by St. Martin's Press.