The “EEV” of Destruction

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With the failure of Congress to reform the immigration laws lastyear, political leaders are searching for election-yearachievements in this area. But the emerging consensus in favor of"electronic employment eligibility verification" will collapse whenAmericans learn thedetails of the technical and regulatory contraption beingproposed. By the fall, Congress will decide whether to renew,expand, or perhaps discard such a program. The lines of debate arebeing drawn now.

Recently, the New Employee Verification Act joined theSAVE Act and a dozen other bills in the Houseof Representatives that would require U.S. employers to submitevery new employee to a database system for a background check. Thestate of Arizona started requiring its employers to do this onJanuary 1, and several more states are considering it. A number ofadministration initiatives to expand and tighten electronicemployment eligibility verification are underway as well.

All of this began with the Immigration Reform and Control Act in1986. That legislation conscripted U.S. employers into immigrationlaw enforcement by requiring them to collect I-9forms from new hires. This succeeded in hiding the cost ofimmigration law enforcement and bloated human resources departmentsacross the country, but it didn't achieve results. Ten years later,with "internal enforcement" of immigration law failing to make anyheadway, the "Basic Pilot" program began. Renamed E-Verify last year, its 52,000 participants-less than1 percent of all employers-submit worker information to agovernment website for comparison against Social SecurityAdministration and Department of Homeland Security databases.

When E-Verify cannot confirm a worker's eligibility, it issuesthe employer a "tentative nonconfirmation." If nonconfirmed workersdo not present themselves at federal government offices withineight days for review of their papers, the government issues a"final nonconfirmation," barring them from working at their newjobs.

If E-Verify goes national, get used to hearing that Orwellianterm: "nonconfirmation." In December 2006, the SSA's Office of theInspector General estimated that the agency's "Numident" file-thedata against which Basic Pilot checks worker information-has anerror rate of 4.1 percent. This means that national employmenteligibility verification would cause one in every 25 new hires toreceive a tentative nonconfirmation. With 55 million new hires eachyear (there is churn in low-end jobs), that's about 11,000tentative nonconfirmations per workday in the United States-alittle more than 25 people per congressional district each day ofthe working week in the first year.

Illegal immigrants would respond dynamically, not passively.More would collude with employers to work under the table, avoidingE-Verify, other employment regulations, and taxes all at the sametime. Others would deepen the minor identity frauds they committoday, getting the documents they need to access employment despitethe database system.

E-Verify can pick up multiple uses of given identities and"nonconfirm" those identities. This would make it more difficultfor illegal immigrants to work, of course, but it would have thesame effect on American citizens. Victims of identity fraud todayencounter financial difficulties; under national E-Verify, theywould be unemployable.

Nonconfirmed citizens begging for the right to work at SSA andDHS offices would be treated as suspected identity thieves andcandidates for deportation. They would have experiences like theyget at the nation's DMVs, post offices, and dentists-long lines,unfriendly service, and painful procedures. Many citizens wouldfall through the cracks, either abandoning employment or resortingto working under the table themselves.

Shockingly, the current E-Verify program has no process forappealing final nonconfirmations. The DHS Web page with information "for employees"provides no advice to workers who believe they have been wronglyrefused the right to work by DHS. A nationwide EEV system wouldwrongly give thousands of eligible American workers finalnonconfirmations each year, with no apparent appeal process,blatantly depriving them of due process and, of course, theirlivelihoods.

Even if a national employment eligibility verification systemwere made workable, it is not a system we should want. Once built,this government monitoring system would soon be extended tohousing, financial services, and other essentials to try to get atillegal immigrants. It would also be converted to policy goals wellbeyond immigration control. Direct regulatory power over Americancitizens would flow to the federal government. Even moreinformation about Americans' lives would flow into federalgovernment databases. And Americans' sensitive personal data wouldbe exposed to more security threats.

But that's on the horizon. Right now, the Arizona experimentwith EEV is starting to hint at results. After a slow start, the E-Verify mandate on employersis combining with other economic factors to chill growth. Says restaurateur B. J.Hernandez: "I feel the environment in Arizona has become soanti-entrepreneurial. If I could leave here, I would." Others aredoing just that, opting for expansion in business- (and immigrant-)friendly climates.

For all its wonders, technology is not something policymakerscan sprinkle on deep-seated economic and social problems to makethem go away. Electronic employment eligibility verification wouldimmerse America's workers and businesses in Kafkaesque bureaucracyand erode the freedoms of American citizens, even as it failed tostem illegal immigration. Ultimately, there is no alternative butfor Congress to repair the broken immigration system byaligning legal immigration with our nation's economic demand forlabor.