An E-Verify Triple: That’s a De-De-Debunker

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker has weighed in with another post on the DHS “Leadership Journal” blog about the E-Verify system for conducting federal immigration background checks on all people hired in the United States. He takes on three supposed myths about E-Verify.

Myth 1: That E-Verify is burdensome for employers.

Baker says that E-Verify is a bit less burdensome than ordering books for the first time on Amazon.com. It would be fun to actually run that test. But just for starters, here’s the 600-word form you have to read and fill out before you even register as an employer. The word count of the Memorandum of Understanding you have to read and sign is well over 3,000 words - eight pages of legalistic instructions. Jeff Bezos! Call your bankruptcy lawyer!

Buying a book from Amazon.com doesn’t require you to check someone else’s documents, doesn’t put you at risk of violating federal law, and so on, and so on. These just aren’t comparables.

Baker’s most interesting evidence? An anonymous commenter on one of his earlier posts who just gushes about E-Verify. In fact, the first two comments on that post - both anonymous - come within nine minutes of each other. One praises E-Verify’s ease of use. The other comes from the “worker” perspective - just like a PR flack would want to have covered. Here’s the actual quote: “This E-verify system will let you know if you have a mistake that you need to correct before it is just too late for you!” So very like an infomercial …

But let’s cut to the chase: Regulators in agencies across the federal government are constantly coming with burdens on employers. Oh, they claim that each one is wafer thin, yes. But the cumulative results are disgusting.

Myth, the second: That E-Verify is discriminatory.

Critics “conjure up evil employers who disfavor certain ethnic groups when they apply government hiring rules,” says Baker. That’s not quite it. Unfortunately, rational employers would disfavor certain ethnic groups. Here’s how I put it in my paper “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration”:

With illegal immigrants today coming predominantly from Spanish-speaking countries south of the U.S. border, identity fraud and corruption attacks on the EEV system would focus largely on Hispanic surnames and given names. Recognizing that Hispanic employees—even native-born citizens—are more often caught up in identity fraud and tentative nonconfirmation hassles, employers would select against Hispanics in their hiring decisions.

But this is against the rules, protests Baker. And it’s true that the program’s rules forbid this behavior. But Baker is thinking quite a bit like the economist in this old joke:

An economist, a physicist, and an engineer are trapped on a desert island and all they have to eat is a can of baked beans. The engineer first tries to open the can by putting at an angle to the sun to try and burn a hole in it. That doesn’t work. So the physicist gets a rock and does some calculations as to how much force he would have to hit the can with to get it open. No luck. Finally, the economist turns to them both and says, “You’re doing it all wrong! What we need to do is assume we have a can opener …”

“If there are rules against it, it won’t happen.” Friends, avoid South Seas adventures with economist Stewart Baker.

Myth 3: That E-Verify does nothing about identity theft.

E-Verify does something about identity theft. You have to have a matching name and Social Security Number pair to get through the system. That makes defrauding employers harder. It will also make identity theft more profitable and more common if E-Verify goes national. Again, from my paper:

Faced with the alternative of living in poverty and failing to remit wealth to their families, illegal immigrants would deepen the modest identity frauds they are involved in today. Their actions would draw American citizens, unfortunately, into a federal bureaucratic identity vortex.

But Baker is talking about in-system fraud, and the idea of accumulating more biometric information into a national identity system. Currently, a “photo screening tool” in E-Verify shows employers the picture that was printed on DHS-issued permanent resident cards and employment authorization documents. This suppresses forgery of cards, while it may lull employers into checking the card against the computer screen - not against the worker. Whatever the case, DHS is seeking access to passport photos from the State Department and driver license photos from state governments across the country so that it can knit together a national biometric database. (Pictures are biometrics - relatively crude ones, of course. When having a picture database fails to secure against illegal immigration, they’ll move to stronger ones.)

Baker is exaggerating to say that the photo screening tool is a significant step in countering identity fraud. It’s only in very limited use, the system itself would promote identity fraud, and countering identity fraud this way requires a national biometric database, with all the privacy ills that entails. This is why we wouldn’t want E-Verify even if it was ready for prime-time.

Three myths debunked? Or three debunkings de-debunked? Secretary Baker’s commentaries are welcome because they illustrate key points of disagreement, allowing you, the American public, a fuller view into the issues at stake.