Thursday, March 02, 2006

Feds may soon check all workers' IDs

Feds may soon check all workers' IDs
By Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Congress is headed toward approving a plan that would require employers to check every worker's Social Security number or immigration work permit against a new federal computer database.

Critics see the move — aimed at stemming illegal immigration — as the beginning of a government information stockpile that could be used to track U.S. residents.

"We're getting closer and closer to a national ID card," says Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Lawmakers such as conservative House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have signed on to the verification plan, which is included in some form in every immigration bill currently before Congress. The goal is to make sure everyone working in the USA is doing so legally.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which handles immigration, begins drafting its version of the bill today. The House bill passed in December.

The bills would require that a pilot program now used by 5,000 employers to check the legal status of job applicants be made mandatory. President Bush's 2007 budget includes $135 million to start expanding the verification system nationwide.


Leading proposals to verify workers' legal status:

• A bill that has passed the House of Representatives would require all employers to use an electronic verification system. It calls for a federal study of tamper-proof Social Security cards.

• A bill by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., calls for all employers to check documents against an electronic database within five years of enactment. There would be a $10,000 fine for hiring undocumented workers.

Proponents say new tools are needed to curb illegal immigration. There are now an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the USA. "If we're going to have any means of controlling our borders, you have to have a tamper-proof Social Security card and verification at the time of employment," says Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif.

Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., says "this is not a national ID system." But several bills authorize studies of "tamper proof" Social Security cards or their issuance. The cards would include some biometric data and would be harder to counterfeit.

During a debate in 1984, former representative Don Edwards, D-Calif., compared a proposed enhanced Social Security card to an "internal passport." Twelve years later, conservative GOP lobbyist Grover Norquist flooded Capitol Hill with activists wearing washable tattoos of an inventory bar code to show how a government clearinghouse could become a way to "track" Americans.

Both sides agree that Congress' willingness to consider such proposals represents a political shift. "They're talking about things that, if I had talked about, they would have burned my humble butt," says former GOP senator Alan Simpson, who helped write immigration laws passed in 1986 and 1996. He contends that Congress' past refusal to create a secure ID system to verify employment eligibility is a reason that neither law stemmed the flow of illegal immigrants.

Former Republican representative Bob Barr of Georgia, now on the ACLU's advisory board, agrees that attitudes have changed, but he doesn't think that is positive. "Far too many people have been swept into the post-9/11 system of fear that is the basis of all public policy these days," he says.

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