78485598 fmt

MAY 2013

Washington considers the use of a biometric ID card to verify status

Immigration reform has been a heated debate on the Hill in recent months. While the government concludes more conspicuous matters such as financing the government’s operations and gun control, immigration reform has garnered a larger spot in the federal limelight as the majority parties have begun to focus on the electoral importance of Hispanics and the patchwork integration of state laws created to curb or bolster immigration.

Since the last general election, Republicans and Democrats have begun focusing on the subject of immigration reform in order to win popularity amongst the Hispanic demographic. National exit polls showed that 10 percent of the electorate was Hispanic in the 2012 general elections. Those figures were 9 percent and 8 percent in 2008 and 2004, respectively. Across the nation, 71 percent of Latinos voted for Obama, compared with 27 percent who chose Mitt Romney as their presidential choice in 2012. As the parties try to court this growing constituency, both sides will try to use immigration reform as the lynchpin for leveraging future votes.

Furthermore, a number of states have enacted their own laws to remedy their state’s immigration problems. This has created a hodgepodge of laws related to immigration, with some laws receiving hardy welcomes in popular support and others receiving challenges in state and federal courts. For instance, bills that would grant driving privileges to undocumented immigrants are gaining momentum. Illinois became the latest state to do so in January 2013, bringing the total number of states to four. Other pieces of legislation, such as Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which requires law enforcement to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are not in the United States legally, discovered widespread pushback. The bill itself was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. This portion of the law was upheld, but civil rights advocacy groups are still fighting to bring down other provisions of the bill and prevent imitative bills from making their way through other statehouses.

With the forces of electoral politics and federalism at play, national immigration reform is a broad term that encompasses various components to compensate for numerous different elements in motion. Granting amnesty or legalization to undocumented immigrants is one main ingredient of this reform. Another is the streamlining of the immigration process for millions of undocumented workers and their families. Many of the legislative proposals currently in the works rely on the use of the E-Verify system to prove the legal work authorization of workers nationwide.

In 1997, E-Verify was created as an electronic, free program run by the U.S. government to compare information from an employee’s Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 to data from U.S. government records. The main purpose of the program is to prevent undocumented immigrants from obtaining work in the United States. If a worker’s information matches government records, the employee in question is deemed eligible to work in the United States. If it does not match, the employee has the right to resolve the discrepancy before the employer must dismiss the individual in question. In 2007, the program added photo matching to its functionalities—a first step to incorporate biometric data into the web interface.

Currently, the tool is optional for employers. More than 409,000 employers across the United States use E-Verify to check the employment eligibility of their employees, with about 1,300 new businesses signing up each week, according to USCIS. In some states, such as Arizona and Mississippi, the use of the program is mandatory. National lawmakers are looking to make the use of E-Verify mandatory for all employers through national immigration reform.

For years now, there has been a call for the mandatory use of E-Verify for all employers and an even greater call for a tightening of security to protect the identities of individuals entered into the system. Because the current E-Verify system can be manipulated with stolen names and Social Security numbers, congressional leaders have indicated a desire to move to employment verification documents that are more difficult to falsify. Several members of the Senate leadership are in favor of introducing a biometric ID card, which would use fingerprints or other unique biological traits.

The use of a biometric ID is not a new concept for immigration purposes. In the 113th Congress, the use of a biometric ID has already been introduced in bills such as H.R. 242, the “Legal Agricultural Workforce Act,” which would redefine the domestic temporary agricultural worker program. The card itself would contain an encrypted, machine-readable, electronic identification strip with biometric identifiers, including fingerprints and a digital photograph. Additional physical security features would also be encompassed within the card. This bill has not received much traction in the House, but the card serves as a model for what could be proposed in a national immigration bill with E-verify provisions focused on tighter security features.

Even though a new biometric ID could be a boon to ensuring tighter security for the identity of people in the E-Verify System, the capabilities that would be used to verify the information are already available through other federal and state matching systems. Any personal identifiers, including biometric information, would need to be run against these systems already in place. This redundancy is something that should be noted before an investment is made into a new form of identification and matching system for immigration purposes. Moreover, privacy advocates also cite continued concerns that this system could be infiltrated or tampered with, leading to the leak of private information, a broader use of the system beyond E-Verify for other governmental purposes and an increase in the error rate in the verification process.

The nexus of national and state political interests has reached Washington. Immigration reform is ready to take center stage, and combating undocumented workers from gaining employment will be a part of the milieu. Correspondingly, employment verification document security is a concern that will need to be addressed before a blanket use of E-Verify for all employers could be implemented. The biometric ID card is a potential solution for fraud prevention, but lawmakers must consider the redundant use of existing systems, cost and privacy concerns before implementation could occur.

For more information, visit aamva.org.