Commentary

Can E-Verify Help Stem Tide of Illegal Immigration?

With the failure of Congress to reform immigration laws, political leaders are searching for election-year achievements in this area. But the emerging consensus in favor of “electronic employment eligibility verification” will collapse when Americans learn the details of the technical and regulatory contraption being proposed.

The New Employee Verification Act recently joined the “SAVE Act” and a dozen other bills in the House of Representatives that would require employers to submit every new employee to a federal government database system for a background check.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act began all this in 1986. It conscripted U.S. employers into immigration law enforcement by requiring them to collect I-9 forms from new hires. Ten years later, the “Basic Pilot” program began. Renamed “E-Verify” last year, its 52,000 participants—less than 1 percent of all employers—submit worker information to a government Web site for comparison against Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security databases.

If E-Verify goes national, get used to hearing that Orwellian term: ‘nonconfirmation.’ ”

When E-Verify cannot confirm a worker’s eligibility, it issues the employer a “tentative nonconfirmation.” If nonconfirmed workers do not present themselves at federal government offices within eight days for review of their papers, the government issues a “final nonconfirmation,” barring them from working at their new jobs.

If E-Verify goes national, get used to hearing that Orwellian term: “nonconfirmation.” In December 2006, the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that the agency’s “Numident” file — the data against which Basic Pilot checks worker information — has an error rate of 4.1 percent. With 55 million new hires each year, that is about 11,000 tentative nonconfirmations per workday in the U.S.

Illegal immigrants would respond dynamically, not passively. More would collude with employers to work under the table, avoiding E-Verify, other regulations and taxes all at the same time. Others would deepen the minor identity frauds they commit today.

E-Verify can pick up multiple uses of given identities and “nonconfirm” those identities. This would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to work, of course, but it would have the same effect on American citizens. Victims of identity fraud today encounter financial difficulties; under national E-Verify, they would be unemployable.

Even if a national employment eligibility verification system were workable, it is not a system we should want. Once built, this government monitoring system would soon be extended to housing, financial services, and other essentials to try to get at illegal immigrants. It would also be converted to policy goals well beyond immigration control. Direct regulatory power over American citizens would flow to the federal government. Even more information about Americans’ lives would flow into federal government databases. And sensitive personal data would be exposed to more security threats.

Electronic employment eligibility verification would immerse America’s workers and businesses in Kafkaesque bureaucracy and erode the freedoms of the American citizen, even as it failed to stem illegal immigration. Ultimately, there is no alternative but for Congress to repair the broken immigration system by aligning legal immigration with our nation’s economic demand for labor.

Jim Harper is director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author of Identity Crisis: How Identification is Overused and Misunderstood.