It appears that civil libertarians and wingnuts have united in opposition to the new Democratic immigration bill, with some progressives borrowing wingnut language:
Creating a biometric national ID will not only be astronomically expensive, it will usher government into the very center of our lives. Every worker in America will need a government permission slip in order to work. And all of this will come with a new federal bureaucracy — one that combines the worst elements of the DMV and the TSA
No, that’s not Sarah Palin, that’s a spokesman for the ACLU.
I haven’t studied the bill, but at first blush the biometric work-eligibility card proposed in the Democrats’ immigration bill is not a national ID card. In any case, it needn’t be to do its job. The key is whether it carries the bearer’s name.
A “national ID card” would be a uniform document that does the job of the current driver’s license or DMV-issued non-driver ID card: it shows that you are who you say you are. I’m not sure that’s a bad idea. But it is certainly much more than is needed to verify work eligibility.
What an employer needs to know is that the person applying for a job is either a citizen or an immigrant legally entitled to work. The work eligibility card doesn’t need a name for that purpose.
A citizen or green-card holder should be able to get a document verifying that fact by showing some official the documents that establish his or her claim to that right. (If an official can’t do it, how is an employer supposed to?) Given that document, an employer just needs to verify that the person presenting it is the person who obtained it. The combination of some sort of digitized biometric (photo, fingerprint, retina scan) and a serial number will do that job. The employer compares the biometric on the card with the person presenting it, and then checks to see if the number on the card is on the master list of those eligible to work, and that the biometric on the card matches the biometric on the list.
Note that even the master list doesn’t need to include any names. It’s just a set of biometric scans of people who have proven work eligibility, arranged by serial number. If you want to get six cards with six different numbers, go ahead. That means that knowing someone’s number tells you nothing about him other than that he holds that number. He can shed that “identity” for a new one on a whim.
You still need a driver’s license or the equivalent to cash a check; the driver’s license is, and the work eligibility card is not, an actual identification document. The police would have no reason to ask to see those cards; not only doesn’t the biometric card prove an identity, lots of people with perfect legal rights to be in the US (e.g., students and tourists) will never get such a card.
I wrote all of this down a long time ago and published it in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
Again, I don’t know whether the authors of the bill figured this out, but if not it’s an easy change to make.
The real question isn’t whether we want a national ID card, it’s whether we want to enforce the law against employing people who aren’t eligible to work by reason of immigration status. Occasional busts don’t do that job: verifying eligibility has to be an employer responsibility. And you can’t ask employers to be responsible unless you make the job technically feasible. A biometric work eligibility card doesn’t solve the deeper problem of faking source documents, but it would make the U.S. a vastly less attractive place to come illegally.
Shutting off the flow of new unauthorized entrants while making life easier for existing unauthorized entrants seems like an obvious formula. But if you’re not willing to back that up with a work eligibility verification system, then you’re not serious about dealing with the problem. And pretending that a biometric work eligibility card has anything to do with “Your Papers, Please” is just confusion. It’s what we can do instead of “Your Papers, Please.”
If Reid, Schumer & Co. can survive the current hysteria, this may turn out to be a brilliant political ploy. Obviously, the teabaggers are going to hate the idea of any sort of new document; paranoia is in their DNA. But they’re also hate “illeeeeeguls.” In addition, the Chamber of Commerce, many of whose members derive their profit margins from paying substandard wages to undocumented workers, won’t be happy with anything that makes that trick harder. But opposing the only effective policy to restrict illegal immigration isn’t going to go over well with most voters.
On the other hand, this serves the interests of key Democratic constituencies: unions, who want to limit the flow of low-wage competition from the south, and advocates for immigrants who want a path to regular status for those currently here and who don’t want an Arizona-style crackdown on anyone who looks brown.
This proposal may be a brilliant wedge.