TechKnowledge No. 120

Scrap E-Verify

The 111th Congress and the new Obama administration should scrap “E-Verify.” The federal government’s inchoate immigration background check system is the culmination of 20 years’ failure to create a tolerable “internal enforcement” program for U.S. immigration law. Rather than building on past failure, the new Congress and president should pull the plug on E-Verify and reform immigration law so that it aligns with the nation’s economic need for labor.

Our country’s immigration rules have held an unnatural cap on bringing new American workers to the United States for decades now. The results have been high rates of illegal immigration and large numbers of illegal immigrants remaining in the country. The “problem” most illegal immigrants present, of course, is their eagerness to enter the labor market, provide goods and services for Americans’ consumption, and grow the U.S. economic pie.

Twenty years ago, though, instead of legalizing the entry of hard-working people into the United States, Washington came up with “internal enforcement” of immigration law. This is the idea that making it illegal to hire an illegal immigrant could reduce the strength of this country’s “economic magnet.” But conscripting employers as federal immigration agents has never worked.

E-Verify is a last-ditch attempt to make “internal enforcement” work, but it won’t. Creating an accurate electronic employment verification system would require a national identification system costing billions of dollars, and it would take hundreds of millions more to run. As much as it stemmed illegal immigration, a national ID and background check system would send law-abiding American citizens into a bureaucratic identity vortex. Even if such a system were viable, it would erode too much of Americans’ privacy while it gave the federal government more control over the law-abiding citizen.

Two of the three “internal enforcement” pilot programs commenced in 1996 have been scrapped. The only reason E-Verify survives is the failure of Congress and the president to enact comprehensive immigration law reform. Early in his first term, President Bush had hoped to make immigration a signature issue. Meetings with Mexican president Vicente Fox in September 2001 laid the groundwork for mutually beneficial reform on immigration and trade rules. At the conclusion of his visit with Fox, President Bush said, “Fearful people build walls. Confident people tear them down.”

The wave of fear that followed the 9/11 attacks built up the walls-both figurative and literal. President Bush continued to seek comprehensive immigration law reform throughout his tenure, but without success. Congressional Republicans committed to an “enforcement first” mantra, and Department of Homeland Security bureaucrats swooned for the budget and power that would come with a national worker monitoring system.

After the collapse of a final effort at comprehensive reform in 2007, the Bush administration gave in to congressional Republicans and the enforcement-thirsty DHS. In August of that year, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced several steps to tighten and expand employment eligibility verification. They proclaimed a rulemaking to require all federal contractors and vendors to use E-Verify. They announced DHS’s issuance of a “no-match” regulation increasing employers’ liability if their workers’ names and Social Security Numbers do not correspond in Social Security Administration records. And they said they would “update” the civil fines for hiring illegal immigrants by 25 percent, expanding criminal investigations of the country’s employers.

The pitchfork-and-torch wing of the Republican caucus may have been mollified-DHS certainly got lots of new projects-but tightening the thumbscrews on American businesses and immigrant laborers did not enthuse the American electorate.

The politics played well for Democrats. A series of hearings in the House during the spring of 2007 demonstrated their care and focus on immigration issues. In the fall of 2008, with E-Verify set to expire, the House passed a five-year extension. But the Senate would only reauthorize E-Verify for a measly four months. The program is now set to expire in early March 2009.

Tellingly, though anti-immigrant groups fumed, Democrats paid no price in the election, while Republicans took a shellacking. William Kristol, founder and editor of the Weekly Standard, summarized the politics on a recent episode of Fox News Sunday (11/9):

There’s been a lot of self-inflicted damage by Republicans. Hispanics-let’s take one group. Some political scientist did some calculations and told me that if Hispanics had voted in 2008 as they had done in 2004, McCain would have carried Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Totally self-inflicted wound by House Republicans, thinking, “Hey, let’s be really tough on immigration and let’s demagogue and let’s not work with President Bush to pass legislation.”

The political prescription going forward is clear. Anti-immigrant groups have vocal cords, but they don’t have the voters. There is little risk to Democrats from squelching “internal enforcement” programs like E-Verify. E-Verify reeks of anti-immigrant animus, and it burdens the business sector with time-wasting red tape.

House Democrats’ pride with the compromise five-year extension bill they passed is misplaced. Instead of palling around with immigrant-bashers, they should move against E-Verify. Republicans will earn nothing but life in the wilderness if they demagogue against immigrants and work to saddle businesses with regulation. Congress should decline to reauthorize E-Verify, and it should decline to fund E-Verify.

For all its wonders, technology is not something policymakers can sprinkle on deep-seated economic and social problems to make them go away. The nation lacks enthusiasm for E-Verify and for poisonous, draconian “internal enforcement” in general.

Scrapping E-Verify would close an avenue along which regulatory power over American citizens would flow to the federal government. Continuing or growing it would draw vastly more information about Americans’ lives into federal government databases, and it would expose their sensitive data to more security threats. The information-age crime of identity fraud would blossom under a national E-Verify system because the value of breaking the government’s identity system would grow higher. Building a national E-Verify system would cost billions of taxpayer dollars (there aren’t any to spare), and it would saddle American workers and employers with more regulatory burdens and criminal liability.

E-Verify should go. There is no alternative but for Congress to repair our broken immigration laws by aligning legal immigration with our nation’s economic demand for labor.

Jim Harper is the director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit TechKnowledge Newsletter - Technology and Telecom Studies.