Restrictions on immigration move forward cautiously.
On September 21, the House Judiciary Committee narrowly approved the employer telephone verification system in HR 2202, the immigration bill championed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). The system would go into effect by October 1, 1999. After that, every employer would have to telephone a division of the Department of Justice and verify the Social Security number or alien identification number of each new hire.
Calling the verification system "a sweeping new assertion of federal power," and "1-800-BIG-BROTHER," freshman Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) introduced the unsuccessful amendment to remove the system from the bill. "It is absolutely unprecedented to say that the government must grant affirmative permission every time any employee is hired," he said.
Smith assured wavering members that the registry would not lead to a national identity card. But just after the registry passed the committee, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) said it "will not work without a hardened card that would verify an individual's identity." He has drafted an amendment to create a new Social Security card including a photograph, hologram, and perhaps such "biometric" identifiers as fingerprints and retina scans. (See "Bringing the Border War Home," October.) McCollum may offer the amendment when the bill reaches the floor of the House. Chabot promises to try to strip the registry from the bill then.
A floor vote may not happen until next year, however. Congress took its October recess before the committee could finish work on the bill's most controversial proposal: a 32 percent reduction in overall legal immigration. And House Majority Leader Dick Armey (Tex.) opposes both the verification system and cuts in legal immigration, so the Republican leadership may not let the House vote on the bill this fall. Meanwhile, Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) wants to add limits on legal immigration to his own bill, S 269, which already includes a "biometric" identity card.
Says one top Senate aide, "There are members pretty high up on the food chain" who will block any effort to cut legal immigration. As for the prospects of a worker registry or ID card passing the Senate, the aide says, "That won't happen."