Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

April Fools for Skilled Workers

Quite appropriately, today exposes another facet of the foolishness that is U.S. immigration policy. April 1st is the day each fiscal year when employers are allowed to begin filing petitions with the US Citizen and Immigration Services for highly skilled workers to be given what are known as H-1B visas. For the second consecutive year, the quota of these visas was reached on this first day of eligibility.

H-1Bs allow employers to hire foreign workers in certain professional occupations. They are good for three years and can be renewed for another three. Though an H-1B cannot lead to a green card, it’s still a pretty good deal.

The problem is that, even in this apparent economic downturn, there aren’t enough visas: Congress limits the number of annual H-1Bs grants, and that magic number has been set at 65,000 for five years now. Before that, and in response to the technology boom of the late ’90s, Congress temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000. But that expansion expired in 2004, and the cap has been reached earlier and earlier each year since.

In 2005, that meant August. In 2006, May 26. Last year, by the afternoon of April 2, 2007 (April 1 was a Sunday), USCIS had received over 150,000 H-1B applications. Officials quickly announced that they would randomly select 65,000 petitions from all those the agency had received in the first two days of eligibility.

Last week, with demand for the prized work permits only increasing, the powers that be decreed that this year’s lottery would accept all entries received in the first five business days. USCIS simultaneously promulgated a rule prohibiting employers from trying to game the lottery by filing multiple petitions for the same employee.

As for the vast majority of employers and employees who will be out of luck, the immigration laws say, like so many “rebuilding” baseball teams this opening week, “wait till next year.” Except, in this case, next year means putting your business or career on hold until October 1, 2009—the day people who secure H-1Bs for fiscal year 2010 can start work.

If only this were all a bad April Fools’ joke.

Read more on this in the article I have up on National Review Online today.

Failed, Self-Contradictory REAL ID Myth-Busting

Today finds another post on the DHS Leadership blog attempting to defend the REAL ID Act. Despite never having made the affirmative case for REAL ID, Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker is attempting to defeat the arguments against it.

The “myth” he purports to dispell this time is that REAL ID creates a national ID:

REAL ID is simple. The regulation requires that states meet minimum security standards when they issue driver’s licenses and identification cards necessary for “official purposes,” like getting on a plane or entering federal buildings. That’s it. The federal government’s role is to make sure that states meet minimum standards of security, so that banks and airports in one state can count on the quality of licenses issued in another.

Once again, I believe savvy Stewart Baker is playing at the role of ingenue. He’s pretending to lack the common knowledge that government programs grow in size and power.

It’s true that REAL ID allows states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards that don’t meet the federal standards. They won’t be acceptable for “official purposes,” which are defined as follows in the statute:

The term “official purpose” includes but is not limited to accessing Federal facilities, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft, entering nuclear power plants, and any other purposes that the Secretary shall determine.

(emphasis added)

Once REAL ID is in place, the secretary of homeland security has the power to require it for any purpose beyond the ones listed in the statute. What might those be? The immigration bill debated in Congress last summer would have required possession of a REAL ID–compliant card in order to work in the United States. If Congress doesn’t do it, perhaps the DHS secretary would do it on his own once REAL ID is at his disposal.

Baker himself recently proposed that REAL ID could be required for buying cold medicine. Wherever the federal government requires the use of identification, it could require possession of a REAL ID. In the very post where he seeks to debunk the fact that REAL ID is a national ID, he mentions the use of REAL ID by banks. The USA-PATRIOT Act extended “know your customer” regulations deep into the financial services sector. The DHS and Treasury could require possession of a REAL ID to access banking.

Strangely, Baker’s post says, “the federal government does not have the authority to regulate how or whether a bank, grocery store, retailer, or school requires REAL ID.” This directly contradicts a premise of his proposal to require REAL ID for cold medicine. It’s unfortunate that the federal government has this power — it shouldn’t — but Baker knows darn well that it does.

It’s technically true that you wouldn’t have to have a REAL ID–compliant national ID card under current law, but refusing one may not be too practical. You’d have to live in a state that gives you that option and then be willing to do without air travel, legal employment, financial services, medicine, and whatever else the Department of Homeland Security decides.

What looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, tends to be a duck. REAL ID is a national ID.

Jury Nullification, David Simon, and the Texas Prosecutor

David Simon has done it again. First, he created the best show on television, The Wire.  Then, he and his co-writers wrote a passionate critique of the drug war in Time magazine, urging jurors to vote their conscience in certain cases. That article has, in turn, sparked a debate over at the Defending People blog. A Texas prosecutor started the debate with an anonymous post against jury nullification. The prosecutor went so far as to say that anyone advocating jury nullification could be prosecuted in Texas. David Simon just cheerfully joined the fracas. 

Previous coverage here. Cato co-published the most comprehensive book on this subject, Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine by Clay Conrad. For shorter works, go here, here, and here.

“New Hampshire Joins Montana in Real ID Victory”

So reports Wired’s “Threat Level” blog as the Department of Homeland Security capitulates in the face of New Hampshire’s rejection of REAL ID. The same thing happened with Montana.

The key? The renegade states send a nice letter that is not a request for an extension of a looming deadline but touts the security of their driver’s licenses, which the Department of Homeland Security accepts as an official extension request. That lets DHS save face, even as it backs down from repeated threats to punish the citizens of rogue states.

New Hampshire wins.

Passport Snooping Is Just the Beginning

Following up on the story earlier this week that the passport files of all three major presidential candidates had been snooped on, Brian Bennett writes in the April 7 issue of Time about plans to distribute passport information very widely indeed, such as to the Department of Homeland Security, IRS, employers, and foreign governments.

Meanwhile, the State Department has a video interview up on its website about passport privacy. Addressing the issue in a long format on a widely accessible medium is a good thing, so congratulations are due State for addressing the issue.

However, the lead question asked of Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy is a big waste of time: “Does every State Department employee have access to personal data that’s given us for passports or other reasons?” That pitch is so slow it doesn’t even reach the plate. But there is some interesting information about the State Department’s data security practices later in the video.

Unaddressed is Brian Bennett’s reporting on the proposal for wholesale sharing of passport information.

Stewart Baker Should Start at the Beginning

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker has posted the second in a series on the REAL ID Act at the DHS Leaderhip blog. I assessed his first try here.

This one raises the privacy issues with REAL ID, and it claims that privacy advocates “can’t and won’t tell you precisely how REAL ID threatens privacy.” Knowing his smarts and savvy, I’m confident that Stewart is feigning unawareness of my book Identity Crisis and the hearings in Congress that have exposed the many threats to privacy from REAL ID specifically, and national ID systems generally. He has also had the opportunity to read the DHS Privacy Committee’s report, which cited and discussed “serious risks” to privacy from the REAL ID program.

It’s true that privacy is a complex subject, and the complexity is preserved by the fact that a number of different interests are often lumped together under the “privacy” heading. But Stewart has certainly had the opportunity to read the Privacy Committee’s “framework document,” which articulates each of these interests. For a more thorough study of privacy in its strongest sense (control over personal information), he could re-read (or perhaps just read) my 2004 study “Understanding Privacy—and the Real Threats to It.”

The claim that privacy advocates won’t articulate the privacy problems with REAL ID is a shift from earlier public comments where Baker reportedly expressed puzzlement about privacy concerns with REAL ID, or his failure to understand them. One can’t be puzzled by the privacy concerns with REAL ID at one point in time and later claim that privacy concerns haven’t been articulated. There’s something else afoot.

I suspect it’s the fact that Baker gives higher priority to implementing REAL ID than to protecting Americans’ privacy. He just can’t bring himself to say so because it wouldn’t be popular or politic. (To be clear: He makes claims that REAL ID will protect privacy, but they do not pass muster.)

Baker should address the privacy consequences of REAL ID in a way that is not feigned ignorance or dismissiveness, but he should do something else first: Tell us what REAL ID is good for. The burden of proof in the debate over REAL ID is not on privacy advocates to say why not, but on proponents of the national ID law to say why.

No proponent of REAL ID, including Stewart Baker, has ever articulated how the program will cost-effectively secure the country against any threat. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security declined to articulate how REAL ID works to benefit the country in its analysis of the REAL ID regulations it issued. This is something I discussed, along with the privacy concerns, in my May 2007 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee:

The Department of Homeland Security has had two years to articulate how REAL ID would work. But the cost-benefit analysis provided in the proposed rules issued in March … helps show that implementing REAL ID would impose more costs on our society than it would provide security or other benefits. REAL ID would do more harm than good.

This is true if you assign no value to privacy at all. Americans do value their privacy and civil liberties, but the conversation should start at the beginning–with an articulation from Stewart Baker of how REAL ID provides cost-effective security.

Bush Opponents Upset That Bush Lost in the Supreme Court

In an interesting side-note to the Medellin decision, the case’s convoluted procedural history made for some rather strange political bed fellows.  The Court’s decision, anchored by the “conservative wing” (Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Alito) and joined by the “moderate” Kennedy and (writing separately) the “liberal” Stevens effectively clears the last remaining roadblock to Texas’s imposition of the death penalty on the murderer Jose Erenesto Medellin.  Consequently, Tuesday’s result disappointed death penalty abolitionists, who join on the losing side those who want international law to have direct applicability in the United States.  That’s right, by ruling against President Bush’s executive overreach – which at least three members of the Court’s “liberal” wing implicitly ratified – the Court angered cosmopolitan liberals.  Go figure.