Opinion

E-Verify threatens Americans’ privacy, livelihoods

Later this week, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to mark up legislation (HR 2164, the so-called “Legal Workforce Act”) to make the “E-Verify” program mandatory for all employers. The legislation would require employers to submit potential hires’ names, Social Security numbers and other data to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for authorization before the employees may start work. The E-Verify program is championed as a way to keep non-authorized illegal immigrants from working in the United States. Some corporations are voluntarily using an E-Verify pilot program, and several states have passed laws mandating its use for public employees and contractors.

While many Republicans — and Democrats — have championed the program, there are lingering questions about its efficacy and fairness. In early 2010, the research firm Westat submitted a report on E-Verify to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service. According to the study, more than half of illegal workers were approved by the E-Verify system, while almost one percent (0.7%) of legally authorized workers were denied access to work by the E-Verify system. In a country with 200 million workers, that is 1.4 million people deemed guilty until proven innocent who have less than two weeks to prove to Homeland Security that they should have permission to work. Even if more than half prove themselves innocent, that leaves hundreds of thousands unjustly barred from employment by what is essentially a “do not work” list.

Constitutional scholar Bruce Fein, a veteran of the Reagan Justice Department, has warned that, once it has been made a universal, mandatory system, E-Verify could be expanded to flag more than just illegal immigrants. Political dissidents, tax protestors feuding with the IRS, “deadbeat dads” engaged in court battles — all could find themselves in the crosshairs. There is precedent for this. Since the “no-fly list” became a reality almost a decade ago, many Americans have been unable to fly commercially simply because of their political activities. Antiwar protestors often found themselves stranded in airports during the Bush administration, and Arizona Treasurer Dean Martin is among those who have accused Obama’s homeland secretary, Janet Napolitano, of putting her political enemies on the no-fly list.

That kind of mission creep is possible not only in the kinds of people listed, but in the information collected as well. The Westat report recommended that DHS begin “exploration of the use of biometrics” as part of the E-Verify system. That would mean no one could hold down a job in America without giving up fingerprints or a retinal scan!

America’s immigration system is broken, but creating a domestic surveillance state isn’t the way to fix it. The best way to prevent unauthorized aliens from working in the United States is to secure the border and improve our immigration system. Placing Americans’ livelihoods at the whim of bureaucrats and their faulty databases will only serve to move us one step closer to George Orwell’s 1984.

James Plummer is policy director for The Liberty Coalition.