Democrats, Republicans Seek to Add Biometrics to E-Verify

By Staff Report

Jul. 22, 2009

Immigration reform typically creates discord within and between parties and interest groups, but Democrats and Republicans are hitting the same note about work-site enforcement as the latest congressional push gets under way.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing Tuesday, July 21, leaders of both parties supported establishing an electronic employment verification system that includes a biometric mechanism to combat identity fraud.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said improving employment verification is critical to boosting public confidence about curbing illegal immigration, which will build support for comprehensive immigration reform.

He hopes to introduce broad legislation this fall. At the hearing, Schumer outlined criteria for an employment verification system that he would include in the bill.

At the top of the 10-point list was the requirement that the system “must authenticate the employee’s identity by using a specific and unique biometric identifier,” such as a fingerprint. He said that giving workers PIN numbers or security codes would not suffice.

Schumer’s primary criticism of the current government-run electronic verification system, E-Verify, is that it is unable to stop ID theft. Companies using E-Verify have been subject to work-site raids because employees have stolen information from actual citizens.

“E-Verify … is an example of a halfhearted and flawed system,” Schumer said. “Simply put, it is not difficult for illegal workers to scam the system by providing the personal information of a legal worker.”

E-Verify compares new hire information from I-9 forms against Social Security, Department of Homeland Security and other government databases. A wide spectrum of critics—including the Society for Human Resource Management—call the system inaccurate and inefficient.

Mike Aytes, acting deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, defended E-Verify. He said the system, which is used on a voluntary basis by more than 137,000 employers, instantly verifies 96.9 percent of new-hire queries. Only 0.3 percent of non-confirmations are successfully contested, Aytes said.

As part of a crackdown on employers, the homeland agency has moved to make E-Verify mandatory for federal contractors.

The agency wants to enhance E-Verify by enabling it to access driver’s license photos. But Aytes acknowledged that the system is vulnerable to identity theft.

In addition to a biometric dimension, Schumer said an effective verification system must apply to citizens and non-citizens, require minimal compliance costs for businesses and exonerate employers from liability if they use the system but severely fine or prosecute them if they knowingly hire illegal workers.

Schumer also said workers should be able to keep their jobs while correcting information in the system and that it would contain strong privacy protections.

“A system with these 10 characteristics will be easier to use, less discriminatory, tougher and more effective than the current E-Verify system,” Schumer said.

Schumer’s focus on biometrics was endorsed by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and the ranking Republican on the subcommittee. He recommended a “secure, tamper-proof and easily verifiable card” as proof of employment eligibility.

Another Republican, who is a leading proponent of cracking down on illegal immigration, questioned whether a biometric system could overcome opposition on the left and right to an identity card.

“Count me a skeptic,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama. “Show me how this will actually work.”

Sessions is among the strongest proponents of E-Verify. An amendment he wrote that would make it permanent was added to a Senate homeland appropriations bill. Authorization for E-Verify runs out September 30. The House version of the measure contains a two-year reauthorization. The measures are now being negotiated.

Democrats raised questions about E-Verify. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, pointed to a 2006 study by the Social Security inspector general showing there are 17.8 million errors in the agency’s database. That could lead to millions of workers being mistakenly ruled ineligible for work, Feingold said.

Aytes dismissed the criticism.

“The E-Verify program has made great strides in becoming a fast, easy and more accurate tool to help employers and workers,” he said. “The administration is dedicated to continuing to make improvements to address issues such as usability, fraud and discrimination.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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