What could be more American than going to the feds, hat in hand, for permission to take a job? The E-Verify system, run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is intended to check the legal eligibility of job applicants to work in the United States. It compares I-9 forms that applicants fill out with records maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, and then delivers a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to their aspirations to earn an above-board paycheck. Mandatory for hires by the federal government, federal contractors and by all employers in several states, E-Verify is well on its way to becoming a national requirement. It's also, as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, a big step toward creating a "permission society" in which the fundamental business of putting food on the table is a privilege to be granted or revoked by the government.
In a white paper detailing ten important objections (PDF)to E-Verify, the ACLU states:
E-Verify turns the relationship between the government and the people upside-down. In order to stop the tiny percentage of those starting jobs in the United States each year who are unauthorized workers, E-Verify would force everyone in the nation to obtain affirmative permission from the government before performing work and earning money.
The other objections are also troubling, but they all follow-on from this one. The ACLU outlines the privacy and security dangers inherent in compiling sensitive information, including identifying data and employment history, in one database. Those risks already exist with existig government databases, but further centralization "would be a goldmine for intelligence agencies, law enforcement, licensing boards, and anyone who wanted to use this vast trove of detailed information for other purposes."
Note that IRS agents and police officers have already been caught abusing databases for personal reasons as well as criminal purposes. There's no reason to think the E-Verify system will be immune.
One potential official abuse pointed out by the ACLU is the expansion of E-Verify "into a comprehensive national identity system that would be used to track and control Americans in ways that have never been done before." We're already well on the way there with Social Security numbers. The E-Verify system could well formalize the requirementf for a national ID — especially now that drivers licenses are included in the database, paving the way for their de facto status as national ID cards.
The ACLU also cautions that employers' commonly violate E-Verify rules by restricting new hires' training and work assignments until final confirmation of their employability comes through. But that makes unfortunate sense, considering the costs involved in committing to new workers — investments that could be lost if the system ultimately kicks back a thumbs-down.
And let's not forget that we're talking about a vast database maintained by the government, an institution motivated more by inertia and incompetence than malevolence (although there's plenty of that, too). How many people will be rendered unemployable because the database is rife with shitty information that is difficult or impossible to correct. Says the ACLU:
Citizenship and Immigration Services report s that in fiscal year 2012, about 1 of every 400 cases submitted to E-Verify resulted in a TNC determination that was subsequently reversed after appeal by the worker. We have seen what many of those people likely go through to get those errors corrected. And while 1 in 400 may not sound high at first blush, in a nation of more than 300 million people and 154 million workers, that would be about 400,000 people improperly deprived of the right to make a living.
There's a lot to dislike about the E-Verify system. And it all starts with a requirement that you get the government's permission to work.