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Senate immigration bill would mandate national employment verification system

Feds would have to expand existing technology; critics concerned about privacy issues, potential for errors

May 18, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld -

The bipartisan immigration reform plan that was announced in the U.S. Senate this week would mandate the development of a national electronic employment verification system affecting every worker in the U.S.

If the Senate proposal becomes law, the federal government would have 18 months to ready a system that could handle as many as 60 million employment verification checks annually.

The intent is to root out people working here illegally. But no system is perfect, and errors on verification checks could have big consequences: Employees who weren't cleared might lose their jobs, a potential Kafkaesque nightmare for native citizens as well as foreign-born workers.

The Congressional Budget Office, in a report last year that looked at earlier legislation seeking electronic verification (download PDF), predicted that the government would have to spend $250 million over the first five years of a verification program compensating employees who lost jobs because of system errors. The CBO forecasted 10 errors per million for native-born workers and an initial error rate of 0.4% -- or 4,000 per million -- for foreign-born workers. It did that the error rate would decline with system improvements.

But errors aren't the only concern. Some policy analysts said they fear that the creation of a verification system like the one envisioned in the Senate proposal could lead to a national ID and enable the government to probe deeply into other databases, such as ones that contain tax records.

"They are going down the road of a national ID, which is already recognized as anathema to the American public," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for limited government and protection of individual liberties.

The government wouldn't be starting from scratch on an employment verification system. It now runs a voluntary verification program, with about 17,000 employers participating out of a potential pool of 6 million or so. People familiar with the technology used to support that program said the government would need to buy additional server capacity to handle the much larger transaction volume that a mandatory national program would generate.

The existing system checks employees against Social Security and immigration data. Verification errors can occur for a variety of reasons, such as data-entry errors, misspellings by individuals or cases in which people who have stopped use their middle names or have changed their last names because of marriage.

In addition, a criticism of the verification system is that a worker can circumvent it by using fraudulent green card or Social Security information, such as the number of a deceased person. Fixing that problem could involve calls for the use of stronger authentication mechanisms, such as biometric identification cards, Harper said.

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