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APRIL 2010

Do Gaps in E-Verify Justify


a National ID?
BY STUART ANDERSON, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and executive director, National Foundation for American Policy.
recent report on E-Verify, which seeks electroni-

cally to verify lawful work status in the United From an immigration enforcement perspective, the clearest
States, indicates a significant gap remains in the shortcoming in the system is that E-Verify cannot reliably pre-
system’s ability to prevent illegal immigrants vent people from using a false identity to appear eligible to
from being hired. That and other problems with work even if they are ineligible. In a 2005 report describing the
the system are not new but have taken on new urgency with Basic Pilot Program, the forerunner to E-Verify, the Govern-
Members of Congress seeking to require all U.S. employers to ment Accountability Office (GAO) stated: “…the program
use E-Verify. The gap in the system is likely to increase calls for cannot currently help employers detect identity fraud . . . If an
a National ID card. unauthorized worker presents valid docu-

In 1986, Congress made it against the mentation that belongs to another person
law for U.S. employers to knowingly hire a
person who is not authorized to work in the
U.S. legislators authorized to work, the Basic Pilot Pro-
gram may find the worker to be work-
United States. This “employer sanctions”
rarely abandon authorized. Similarly if an employee pres-
law failed to reduce illegal immigration. programs that ents counterfeit documentation that con-
Some argue these provisions have not been don’t work well, tains valid information and appears
sufficiently enforced. Others point out em-
ployers are not document experts and can
despite the costs authentic, the Basic Pilot Program may
verify the employee as work-authorized.” 2
violate civil rights laws if they excessively or the impact “ Changing the name of the program to E-
scrutinize the documents presented to them. on law-abiding Verify has not eliminated this problem.
Some hope a way around the false docu-
ment and civil rights dilemmas is to require
individuals. A December 2009 report on E-Verify by
the consulting group Westat, which is on
employers to use the electronic verification contract to the U.S. Department of Home-
system known as E-Verify. In theory, the system is voluntary. land Security, identified similar shortcomings in the system:
However, the federal government, along with some state legis- “Due primarily to identity fraud, the inaccuracy rate
latures, has started to require employers to use E-Verify. Federal for unauthorized workers is approximately 54 percent. Ap-
contractors, for example, cannot receive U.S. government con- proximately 3.3 percent of all E-Verify findings are for un-
tracts unless they utilize E-Verify. authorized workers incorrectly found employment authorized
To start using E-Verify, an employer must enter into a and 2.9 percent of all findings are for unauthorized workers
Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the federal gov- correctly not found employment authorized. Thus, almost half
ernment, specifically the Department of Homeland Security’s of all unauthorized workers are correctly not found to be em-
(DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau ployment authorized (2.9/6.2) and just over half are found
(USCIS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA). After to be employment authorized (3.3/6.2). Consequently, the
enrolling, the employer transmits information electronically inaccuracy rate for unauthorized workers is estimated to be ap-
on new hires that are checked against SSA and DHS databases.1 proximately 54 percent with a plausible range of 37 percent to

1 0 0 0 M A S S A C H U S E T T S AV E , N W ● WAS H I N G TON , D C 2 0 0 0 1 ● W W W. C AT O . O R G
64 percent.”3 database would house everyone’s information.
The Westat analysis reached the same con- The cards would not contain any private infor- IMMIGRATION REFORM
clusion as the GAO: “This finding is not sur- mation, medical information or tracking
prising, given that since the inception of E- devices. The card would be a high-tech version
Verify it has been clear that many unautho- of the Social Security card that citizens already
rized workers obtain employment by commit- have.” 7
ting identity fraud that cannot be detected by Employers would be compelled to use
E-Verify.” 4 the system. “Prospective employers would be
U.S. legislators rarely abandon programs responsible for swiping the cards through a
that don’t work well, despite the costs or the machine to confirm a person’s identity and
impact on law-abiding individuals. The more immigration status. Employers who refused to
typical response is to expand the program and swipe the card or who otherwise knowingly
increase the burdens on taxpayers and affected hired unauthorized workers would face stiff
parties. In this case, the “affected parties” are fines and, for repeat offenses, prison sen-
everyone in America who wishes to hold a job. tences,” write Schumer and Graham.8


E-VERIFY MANDATORY When it comes to illegal immigration,
Legislation Congress considered in 2006 policymakers often present conflicting
and 2007 would have mandated that all em- narratives. Elected officials cannot decide
ployers eventually use E-Verify for new hires. whether the problem is that employers are
Some proposals in Congress have called for unscrupulous or that they are honest but
verifying the legal status of all current employ- unable to verify documents. Most of the
ees as well. Any future comprehensive immi- recent rhetoric emanating from Washing-
gration reform legislation is almost assured to ton, D.C., indicates elected officials think
include provisions to require employers to use most employers are cheats.
E-Verify. But if employers are dishonest, then the
Currently, approximately 180,000 employ- easiest way to beat E-Verify, a National
ers utilize E-Verify.5 While that sounds like a ID card, or any other combination of systems
large number it is not when one considers and documents is simply not to use them, hir-
there are more than 5.8 million firms that ing workers “under the table.” The costs and
employ one or more people in the United burdens then would fall on those who obey
States.6 That means only about 3 percent of the law, not on those who break the law.
employers in America currently use E-Verify. Few are asking the more obvious ques-
tion: Wouldn’t the issue of unauthorized
A NATIONAL ID CARD TO PLUG THE HOLES? workers be resolved if employers were simply
The idea of plugging any perceived gaps given access to a legal supply of workers who STUART ANDERSON, Editor
in E-Verify and employer sanctions generally is are willing and able to work in the United IMMIGRATION REFORM
on the minds of elected officials. Discussing States? If a robust temporary visa program BULLETIN provides timely informa-
were operating, almost all employers would tion, insight, and analysis about efforts
their plans for immigration legislation in
to expand opportunities for legal immi-
a Washington Post op-ed, Senators Charles hire only legal and available workers. Such a gration to the United States. The bulletin
Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) policy is far preferable to requiring 97 per- seeks to highlight immigration policies
write, “We would require all U.S. citizens and cent of the population—legal immigrants, that promote economic growth, national
security, and individual liberty.
legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain native-born and naturalized citizens—to
a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card. carry National ID cards to make it more dif- For more information
Each card’s unique biometric identifier would ficult for 3 percent of the population to on immigration policy,
visit www.cato.org/
be stored only on the card; no government work in the United States. immigration.
The MOU for E-Verify can be found at http://www.uscis.gov/files/nativedocuments/MOU.pdf
Government Accountability Office, Immigration Enforcement, August 2005, GAO-05-813, pp. 22-23.
Westat, Findings of the E-Verify Program Evaluation, Report Submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, December 2009, pp. xxx-xxi.
U.S. Census Bureau, data on employment size of employer and nonemployer firms, 2004.
Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham, “The Right Way to Mend Immigration,” The Washington Post, March 10, 2010.
Jim Harper, Cato’s Director of Information Policy

Studies, Answers Some Key Questions About a

National ID Card
CATO: What are the key civil liberties frauds so they can get a national ID and
objections to a National ID card? access valuable employment. Not only fraud,
but corruption of Department of Motor
JIM HARPER: Put simply, a national ID sys- Vehicles (DMVs) would increase. It’s worth
tem would transfer power from individuals tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars
to governments. Created to give the govern- over a period of years to access legal work,
ment control over access to employment, a and a DMV worker might take a cut of that
national ID would quickly come to give gov- in order to bring people into the “legal” sys-
ernment control over access to health care, tem. Given the value of having a national ID,
financial services, gun ownership, housing, forgery networks would likely spring up to
and any other thing that Congress saw fit to produce high-quality fake documents.
regulate. There is a theoretical fix for each of these
The creation and operation of a national problems, but every step to “strengthen” the
ID system would have huge consequences for national ID and the background check sys-
privacy. Digital copies of our foundational tem would increase the burden and the priva-
identity would go into government databas- cy intrusion on the law-abiding citizen.
es, as well as copies of our biometrics – finger-
prints, iris scans, DNA, and such. Govern- CATO: Not that it necessarily matters to
ment and businesses (which too willingly lawmakers, but are National ID cards
share with governments) would require card likely to be costly for taxpayers? If so,
swipes from people regularly, creating deep why?
reservoirs of data about our comings and
goings, our purchases, our spending, our JIM HARPER: To get their national ID,
communications, and so on. American citizens would have to locate iden-
The security issues around the card system tity documents buried deep in old files,
and these data-bases are immense, creating fur- ordering new birth certificates and such
ther risks to the privacy of all Americans. when these documents have been lost.
Americans would spend hours in line waiting
CATO: Is there evidence National ID cards to be fingerprinted or digitally scanned into
would be successful in eliminating illegal the system. And Americans would have to
immigration? make multiple trips to enrollment centers
when their papers were found to be out of
JIM HARPER: Using a national ID card to order, taking time away from work, family,
control access to work would make life a lit- and leisure to get their national IDs.
tle more difficult for illegal immigrants, so it The Department of Homeland Security
could reduce illegal immigration by some estimated that implementation of the REAL
small amount. But a number of countermea- ID Act would cost over $17 billion dollars.
sures and complications mean that a nation- That was a modest proposal compared to the
al ID would not chase illegal workers out of biometric systems now being proposed,
the country. which, given past state refusals in this policy
For example, the already common prac- area, are likely to be built from the ground
tice of working “under the table” would up. Costs for a biometric national ID system
increase. The undocumented workers that could easily top $100 billion and, given the
now present someone else’s Social Security history of government programs, may reach
Number would deepen these minor identity as high as $1 trillion over a period of years.