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Biometric ID Cards

April 20, 2007


Nearly a year ago I wrote about the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s Basic Pilot Program, which electronically searches a combination of Social Security and immigration databases to verify an employee’s status [Man versus Machine]. I noted in theory the Basic Pilot Program is a simple idea — an employer checks a potential employee’s data against Social Security and immigration records to verify his or her employment status. In tests, however, the system had a large error rate and trying to correct errors is manpower intensive and slow. I concluded it was “time to face the fact that some sort of biometric identification system is going to have to be used in the case of ambiguous identity.” Now, Doris Meissner, the INS commissioner under President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, and James Ziglar, an INS commissioner under President George W. Bush and now the president and chief executive of a biometric technology company, are pushing for a Social Security card with embedded biometric data [“The Winning Card,” New York Times, 16 April 2007. Meissner and Ziglar begin their op-ed piece noting that President Bush is again pushing for immigration reform:

“President Bush has once again started speaking out for comprehensive immigration reform, and a draft plan to rally Republican senators on the issue is circulating just as Congressional hearings on the issue approach. Members of Congress recognize that voters are looking for real reform that rests on resolute, effective enforcement of our immigration laws.”

They note that the only serious legislation currently moving through the legislative process tackles the enforcement issue by focusing on making employers accountable for their hiring practices.

“To that end, the bill incorporates lessons learned from the largest immigration enforcement operation ever undertaken. Last December, Department of Homeland Security agents descended on meat processing plants run by Swift & Company in six states, arresting more than 1,200 unauthorized workers. The arrests were astonishing because Swift participates in Basic Pilot, a voluntary Department of Homeland Security program that allows employers to electronically verify the work eligibility of newly hired workers against department and Social Security databases. The program is seen as the precursor for a verification system that would become mandatory with comprehensive immigration reform. Since Swift was using the department’s system, how did it end up with illegal workers?”

As I noted at the beginning of this post, flaws in the Basic Program have been known for some time. Meissner’s and Ziglar’s question is nevertheless worth asking again. For Meissner and Ziglar, the question is rhetorical because they think they have answers for both what went wrong and what can be done about it.

“The Basic Pilot program has a fatal flaw, which is that it requires only electronic verification of employment eligibility. An effective program should also insist on tamper-proof identification documents for job-seekers, incorporating biometrics like digital photographs and fingerprints to prove identity. Only then would it be possible to establish not only that job applicants are authorized to work, but also that they are who they say they are. Otherwise, valid Social Security numbers can be presented to employers, and Basic Pilot will verify them, but the numbers may not belong to the workers who present them. In fact, if the Basic Pilot program as now constructed becomes mandatory for employers, the incentive for generating documents with real but stolen Social Security numbers will significantly increase. Document vendors will charge ever-heftier fees to those seeking ‘papers,’ employers will hire them with impunity, and the availability of work for unauthorized workers will continue to be a powerful stimulus for illegal immigration, this time seriously compromising the integrity of Social Security numbers and records. As former commissioners of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, we grappled with the same issues that confront today’s Department of Homeland Security. Since then, we have worked together on the Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, which recommended secure, biometric Social Security cards. There is no other known method for linking a Social Security number to its rightful owner.”

Ziglar notes that his company could benefit from legislation (like that currently being considered) that requires biometric cards, but this disclosure doesn’t mean that such cards are not a good idea. Meissner and Ziglar recognize that their call for widespread biometric identification pushes the U.S. closer to having a national ID card. They also realize that national ID cards are a sensitive political subject and so they attempt to disarm critics.

“To insist on secure documents with biometric identifiers is not a call for a national ID. Green cards, temporary work permits and passports are secure and reliable for hiring purposes. Adding Social Security cards to this list, establishing a single standard for their security features, and replacing old cards over a designated period would resolve the problem on a national scale.”

I think some critics would argue that green cards, temporary work permits, and passports are not as secure and reliable as Meissner and Ziglar believe. I’m also not sure whether a Social Security card with embedded biometric data that resolves identification problems “on a national scale” doesn’t qualify as a national ID card. Just because Meissner and Ziglar want to avoid the hot topic of national ID cards, their proposal should nevertheless be taken seriously. The benefits they said would accrue from implementing such a card include:

“Legal immigrants and American citizens could prove their identities and eligibility to work without facing discrimination based on appearance or language. Scarce enforcement resources could be spent on apprehending real criminals and addressing national security threats. And a new system of enforcement would at last have a chance to win back public confidence in the nation’s immigration policies. After more than 20 years of failed efforts, Congress must not bake half a loaf. Secure biometric Social Security cards are an essential ingredient in any comprehensive immigration reform.”

As I wrote in my previous post, “None of this is going to be easy or cheap. In addition, the line between essential identity verification and intrusion of civil liberties is very thin.” In this case, the benefits probably outweigh the risks. It is unhealthy and unproductive to argue continually about illegal immigration without having in a place a system that provides an affordable and reliable way for employers to hire employees without fear of INS raids that can shut them down or cause serious disruptions in the economy.

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