Commentary

E-Verify’s Slippery Slope

Federal programs are notorious for mission creep. Small programs intended to address specific concerns typically grow far beyond their original bounds. Social Security numbers are a prime example: They initially were intended to track personal income in order to calculate Social Security benefits, but now they are indispensable for access to credit, purchasing a firearm and much more.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering another program destined to creep into the rest of our lives. The Legal Workforce Act (LWA), introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), would mandate E-Verify for all new hires in the United States. E-Verify is a government program intended to discourage the hiring of illegal immigrants by enabling employers to verify the legal work status of all new employees.

Mandating E-Verify would force every American to ask the government for permission to work. That is bad enough, but it gets even worse: The system is defective. The database it relies on often fails to identify illegal immigrants and sometimes rejects people who are legally eligible to work.

Mandating E-Verify would force every American to ask the government for permission to work.

These inaccuracies portend dangerous mission creep. According to a recent government audit, E-Verify approves roughly half of illegal immigrant workers, partly because it only checks the documents that the worker gives the employer, creating a huge loophole. LWA attempts to resolve that by notifying all Americans when their Social Security numbers are used for employment verification. But that won’t close the loopholes, and so eager politicians in Washington will keep piling on new regulations, mandates and controls.

The next step will be a national biometric identity card for all citizens and legal residents to aid workplace verification of immigration status. LWA creates “pilot authentication programs” based on “new technologies,” which will combine E-Verify with our biometric information to create a more foolproof system. Such a system was proposed in 2010. Organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform already support it.

But mandatory E-Verify could soon morph into far more than a workplace regulation.

House Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) indicated as much when he recently said, “the law allows for that information [from E-Verify] to be used for other purposes. If it discovers that an illegal act is taking place, it can report that illegal act.” Mission creep isn’t just a remote possibility; it is inevitable, according to Goodlatte.

Enforcing other immigration laws or crimes goes far beyond E-Verify’s original intent. E-Verify compares your government issued ID to your personal information in government databases — multiplying the possibility for errors and the potential for the government to prevent otherwise legal exchanges.

E-Verify keeps records of all queries for 10 years. If it becomes mandatory for employment, it could soon be used to register other things than workers and where they’ve applied for jobs. The National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR) opposes E-Verify because it could be used to regulate firearm ownership, provide the infrastructure for a national firearms database or create another layer of checks at the point of purchase.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) tried to amend the LWA to limit E-Verify to only employment verification. His amendment should have passed easily, but most Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee opposed limiting E-Verify’s reach. More troubling is that limiting E-Verify to employment verification wouldn’t prevent it from eventually being used elsewhere. This Congress or a future Congress could easily tear down any legislative wall built around E-Verify and expand its use for other purposes.

E-Verify’s mission creep and likely future expansion into a national biometric identity card cannot be fixed by an amendment to LWA. Language in the LWA specifically opposes a national ID card, but that is a parchment barrier that can be easily overcome. Only by rolling back E-Verify and preventing a mandate can we guarantee that it won’t expand.

Illegal immigration is a problem, but forcing all American workers to get government approval to work is a cure far worse than the illness. Are the supporters of mandatory E-Verify willing to accept its inevitable mission creep?

Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.