A biometric work eligibility card is not a national ID card

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

15 thoughts on “A biometric work eligibility card is not a national ID card”

  1. It seems to me that the verification card is to immigration reform as the individual mandate was to health care. In both cases the policy sounds bad on its own, but without it, none of the rest the reforms can work.

  2. Any document you carry with you, where you are compared to something stored on the document, is an open invitation to forgery. No card is needed; You collect the biometrics, and store them in a database indexed to SS and resident alien ID numbers. The person applying for the job supplies the number, which they must do anyway for you to legally hire them, and puts their finger on a fingerprint scanner. Both pieces of data go off to the central database, and it reports back if they match or not. Perhaps along with a photo from the database, so that if the fingerprint doesn't match very well, but the picture does, you know your scanner needs cleaning.

    Since you have to send in the biometrics along with the number to get a response, and only get a yes/no response, you can't even abuse the system by sending in queries on random numbers, or inquiring about the SS number of somebody whose fingerprint you lifted off a drinking glass.

    To repeat, ID you compare to the bearer, rather than using to access a database you compare to the bearer, only works if you've got some magical ID manufacturing technology nobody can duplicate. Whereas access to a central database, (Which would certainly be compiled anyway when the physical ID were made.) eliminates the need for a physical ID you carry with you.

    Screw the papers, I've already got my SS number memorized.

  3. A couple of points:

    The language of the proposed law apparently mandates that the work eligibility card may not be requested in any context other than establishing work eligibility: not by cops, not by other authority figures.

    I don't know about Brett, but I apply for jobs infrequently, and thus the proposed work eligibility card would not be, as Brett puts it, a document I carry with you. I know little about the proposed ID card, but I'm betting Brett doesn't, either. I'm pretty sure some sort of internal and possibly external checks are contemplated.

    At any rate, as I see it we have four choices: the status quo, with a massive population of fearful and easily exploited undocumented workers; open borders; mass deportations by means of a police state, as proposed in Arizona but much more so (since Arizona's law will achieve little except to foster resentment among hispanic citizens and legal residents and to make illegal residents even less friendly to the forces of law and order); and structural changes so that we are no longer screaming a siren song of (relative) opportunity to the undocumented laborers of the world. I much prefer the last of these options.

    As I see it, we don't have a solvable border problem. People leave their homes, their families, everything they know and love, for years at a time, endure enormous hardship, hike across blazing deserts, and take out crippling debts to pay violent untrostworthy criminals and drug smugglers in the hopes of getting into the US and doing jobs for low pay. In the US, they are often exploited by employers and landlords who can abuse their undocumented status. It may take them several tries to successfully cross the border. Given that the perceived reward outweighs all that, it is absurd to suggest that a slightly greater level of difficulty by random papers checks will deter the flow if undocumented migrants. So, we don't have a "border problem": we have a labor market problem.

    The solution is two-fold: make it harder to employ undocumented workers – which would almost certainly entail something like this proposed worker eligibility card, and make it harder to abuse, exploit, and underpay workers in a manner that only undocumented workers, limited in their ability to find other work and in their ability to demand better conditions or pay, would accept. So, while it's quite possible that the details of this proposed card would offend me or that they might not succeed, it seems to me that some program of this sort is necessary.

  4. I'm far from convinced that we couldn't secure the border to an extent that would significantly reduce the success rate of people trying to cross it illegally. We haven't succeeded at this to date, that's true, but it's also because it's longstanding government policy to FAIL at securing the border. The federal government isn't going to take Arizona to court over this law because it would interfere with immigration enforcement, they're going to do it because it might make immigration enforcement effective.

    Nor is securing the border unaffordable. We spend chump change on border security. We have a long border, yes, but the key measure is border length/GDP, and we're in better shape on that than virtually any other non-island nation. We could literally line the border with an Israeli style border fence, two of them with a mine field between, for a fraction of one year's defense budget.

    But securing the border is, at this point, the classic case of closing the barn door after the livestock have run out. We could have perfect border security tomorrow, and still have an absurdly large number of illegal aliens to deal with. We can't solve that problem with an amnesty, all that does is cause more people to come across in the expectation that they'll benefit from the NEXT amnesty. Nor will the public stand for it, and rightly so: People understand that those illegal aliens were deliberately allowed in, and that the purpose of an amnesty is to make their presence irreversible in the event the public ever manages to elect a government that actually represents it on this subject.

    Employment IS the real leverage point, and a secure ID system for job seekers, combined with some kind of bounty on employers who hire illegal aliens, (Pay it out to the first illegal alien to rat on their own employer, and you'd destroy the trust necessary for employers to risk hiring them.) would be effective. Implement it, and almost all of the illegal aliens would self-deport in a few years.

    I just don't think it requires issuing cards. It does require some kind of biometrics database that can be accessed to establish that a potential employee is who they claim to be. But cards? Nope, they contribute essentially nothing.

  5. Who cares if a "National ID" contains my "name"… It's my identity! If the Gov't can ever possibly deny me a job based on my "biometric identity" in a national database- they also have the power to literally declare me an "unperson". Do you think they would stop after the "illegals"?

    Read the law that enabled the Social(ist) (In)Security Administration… Nobody was allowed to use your SS number as an identifying document- until they did. (i.e.-try getting health care or a job without giving an SS number…)

  6. Warren Terra: "People leave their homes, their families, everything they know and love, for years at a time, endure enormous hardship, hike across blazing deserts, and take out crippling debts to pay violent untrostworthy criminals and drug smugglers in the hopes of getting into the US and doing jobs for low pay."

    As indeed in Europe, exchanging hiking across deserts for crossing the Med in leaky small boats, or failing to. I can't think here of any obviously brilliant Spanish or French or German policy that serves as a model for the US. What the EU does consciously try to do, with not much success, is reduce the incentive for illegal immigration by development aid in Africa. There are also schemes for resettling deported illegal immigrants in their home countries.

    The financial crisis and recession has largely been a problem of rich countries, and the income disparity between say Spain and Brazil or Morocco has dropped. The flow of (legal) Polish workers to Britain has I believe gone into reverse for similar reasons. The ultimate solution to illegal migration is growth in poorer countries.

  7. The point is the right feels like we already have a way to identify people, skin color. Government could 'unperson' you if the card is what matters, but noone is getting rid of your white skin.

  8. "Not a national ID card"

    And how long before it becomes one? Social Security cards weren't meant to be used as a way to identify people either, but now the use of the Social Security number as a identifier is ubiquitous. Since the biometric data in the card can be digitized (i.e. made into a number), I would expect nothing less from this.

    Kleiman, you want us to trust the govt not to exploit this card for purposes other than those for which it is ostensibly intended. If you seriously think it will play out that way in the long run, you are incredibly naive.

  9. "The language of the proposed law apparently mandates that the work eligibility card may not be requested in any context other than establishing work eligibility: not by cops, not by other authority figures."

    We tried this kind of thing with the recent Congressionally mandated non-database background check for guns (NRA v. Reno). The statute specifically states "No department, agency, officer, or employee of the Unit-

    ed States may–

    (1) require that any record or portion thereof generat-

    ed by the [NICS] be recorded at or transferred to a

    facility owned, managed, or controlled by the United

    States or any State or political subdivision thereof; or

    (2) use the [NICS] to establish any system for the

    registration of firearms, firearm owners, or firearm

    transactions or dispositions, except with respect to

    persons, prohibited [by law], from receiving a firearm. "

    Despite the super-clear instructions, Janet Reno and the FBI kept the information in a database.

    Obama Supreme Court short-lister Judge Merrick Garland ruled that because the lists were not a full registration (containing a list of all gun owners) that this didn't count. He also ruled that keeping the back-up records indefinitely while removing the records from the instantly accessible database after six months, was fine.

    We've also tried it recently with the Patriot Act. Remember back when the Patriot act was ONLY ONLY ONLY to be used in terrorism investigations?

    The recent track record on government information firewalls sucks.

  10. Interestingly enough, and as an aside, I heard a radio ad this morning from the Department of Homeland Security advising employers that they could check "eligibility to work" for free on the DHS website, through the E-Verify program. If that's the case, then what need for an "eligible to work" card?

  11. I'm all for a National ID. It's just ridiculous that we don't have them, and largely rely on Drivers' Licenses, Social Security Cards, and Birth Certificates to make up for the deficit.

    We haven’t succeeded at this to date, that’s true, but it’s also because it’s longstanding government policy to FAIL at securing the border.

    No, it hasn't. In fact, the past 25 years have seen a period in which the federal government noticeably stepped up border enforcement, particularly at main ports-of-entry like San Diego, El Paso, and the like (they almost completely cut off illegal entry near San Diego for a while). It was before IRCA in 1986 that border security was notoriously lax – they pretty much just made it difficult enough that only idiots got caught and sent back, and migrant workers could come north to work in the fields, then go back home when the season ended.

    We could literally line the border with an Israeli style border fence, two of them with a mine field between, for a fraction of one year’s defense budget.

    This is begging for a public relations nightmare the first time some migrant man, woman, or child steps on a mine and dies in the open. The Israels have the Wall because it has broad support among Israeli citizens in terms of preventing terrorist attacks, and they take a ton of flack over it. How much do you think the US would take for "walling off" Mexico?

    Nor will the public stand for it, and rightly so: People understand that those illegal aliens were deliberately allowed in, and that the purpose of an amnesty is to make their presence irreversible in the event the public ever manages to elect a government that actually represents it on this subject.

    No, the point of amnesty is to deal with the facts on the ground. You have a large population of illegal immigrants, many of whom have been here for more than a few years. Deporting them is just not realistic anymore, not for 12 million of them. The economic and social chaos would be immense, both in the US and Mexico (and chaos in the latter is an incentive for more immigration).

    Employment IS the real leverage point, and a secure ID system for job seekers, combined with some kind of bounty on employers who hire illegal aliens, (Pay it out to the first illegal alien to rat on their own employer, and you’d destroy the trust necessary for employers to risk hiring them.) would be effective. Implement it, and almost all of the illegal aliens would self-deport in a few years.

    I'm not so sure about that specific method (although it is an interesting idea), but I agree that we really need to come down hard on employers who hire illegal immigrants, particularly in the agriculture and construction sectors. While there are "push" and "pull" factors driving illegal immigration, the biggest factor is simply that illegal immigrants can make much more money up north, money that outweighs the costs of getting in the country (like hiring a coyote). Since illegal immigration also tends to be a process of networking – the first wave of illegal immigrants set up in the country, then send news to their hometowns in Mexico, which encourages another wave of migrants north – doing the above would cause "No jobs available" to filter back down into Mexico, chilling the prospects for migration.

  12. A few comments:

    First, Mark, please talk about this with some other people in the UCLA poli sci,

    policy, law or common-sense departments (note: history is not one of these). Frankly, given

    this and your hippy-bashing comment further up the blog, you've got a something pissing you off.

    If you have a friend who can help you, please have them do something. Get some beer

    in a nice outdoor brewbpub or something.

    Second – such a document would serve quite handily as a near-universal ID, and would be *extremely*

    useful to many, many organizations. The only question is how long it'd take before

    somebody gets arrested for not having one on them (despite the actual charge); I'd bet

    within five years. And it'd be sooner for not having one on you to be extremely inconvenient;

    think of how often not having a driver's license on you is a problem, aside from being

    pulled over while driving.

    Third – enough demand-side enforcement to cut illegal immigration is politically impossible.

    True, *if* one posited going to employers and actually levying fines, one could cut

    demand, but *only* if one could somehow stop the employers' political pressure, which

    is certainaly not the case. Take large farmers and food industries, the restaurant

    and hotel/resort industries, and add things like construction, put them all together,

    and make them extremely angry, and even the Hulk would be running and hiding.

    Fourth – note that huge chunks of this would have been countered by union pressure, from legal

    and unionized workers in those fields. They sure didn't enjoy the cheap and exploitable labor

    that they had to deal with. For all right-wingers, you made America far more of an employers'

    paradise; heavily tolerated illegal immigration is part of the package – tough sh*t.

    Fifth – right now Mexico is in rather bad shape. Anything which substantially cut

    illegal immigration to the USA would hammer the Mexican economy,

    increasing unemployment directly by a massive amount

    (people working in the USA), and then by an additional massive amount

    (the remittances being cut off). What's your plan for dealing with that?

  13. I think Mark is a bit too optimistic. If the card has a serial number it is identification, even without a name. I can imagine private databases springing up pretty quickly. Remember, the "no ID" pledge of the SSN was subverted by private action, more than state action. If the card has no public serial number, it might be okay if:

    1. It is really, really secure from third party intervention.

    2. You can trust Unk.

    As far as #2 is concerned, I will note that the Obama Administration has been fairly continuous with the Bush Administration on privacy matters. I agree with Mark that the left has been way too harsh on the Obama Adminstration in general, but I'll go with the lefties on privacy.

  14. "Remember, the “no ID” pledge of the SSN was subverted by private action, more than state action. "

    Good point, and (something I didn't think of, but got from a disturbing book on privacy several years ago) for practical purposes, if there's a private database/system of databases, the government can pay for access. Which means, given current networks and wireless, that an agent or officer can swipe the card through a terminal, and get the information pretty much as if it were in a government database.

    "I will note that the Obama Administration has been fairly continuous with the Bush Administration on privacy matters. I agree with Mark that the left has been way too harsh on the Obama Adminstration in general, but I’ll go with the lefties on privacy."

    "I will note that the Obama Administration has been fairly continuous with the Bush Administration on privacy matters. I agree with Mark that the left has been way too harsh on the Obama Adminstration in general, but I’ll go with the lefties on privacy."

    Awwwwwwwwwwwww – you're a HIPPIE! Mark's a gonna get you!

  15. “Remember, the “no ID” pledge of the SSN was subverted by private action, more than state action. ”

    Kleiman addresses this issue: he says you can have more than one card, or you can just get a new card every once in a while. Allowing people to have more than one valid work id at a time along with having no picture or name on the card collectively make it tough to use the card as an ID. To Brett: the work ID card doesn't have to be perfect to discourage most illegals and employers. It's likely to be good enough if it is substantially better than the current system. You're requiring the Border Wall to be perfect; why are you requiring the card to be perfect?

Comments are closed.