A reliable and comprehensive identification system is long overdue in the United States. That fact was forcefully brought home to America by the terrorist attacks of September 11. All of the terrorists had obtained U.S. Social Security cards and state-issued driver's licenses, which they used to board the airplanes that they hijacked in their attack.
“The internet has made ID fraud even more prevalent. Government enforcement officials estimated that 30 percent of all phony IDs now come from the web. Research by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 2000 found over five dozen websites that readily offered false identification documents and phony credentials.”
Washington Post May 19, 2000
We have known for years that the loopholes in our identification documents systems were being exploited for purposes of breaking the law. This was seen most often in the proliferation of counterfeit document rings that produced fake documents for illegal aliens seeking jobs. Now that it is clear that the absence of standards and means to verify a person's identity will be used to facilitate attacks on the country, Americans and our policymakers have begun to understand the vital importance of restoring the reliability of our identification documents.
Choose Security, Not Naivete
It is naive to think that anyone's privacy is being protected by the lack of secure identity verification. In fact, great harm has already been done to our country by terrorists who extensively used weaknesses in our identity document systems to obtain a large number of identity documents, including multiple valid state driver's licenses, to assist them in their terrorist attacks.
Identity verification is not a national identity card registry. Opponents of the verification system like to say that it would be a national identity system that could infringe on individual liberties. Yet the fact is that the system would use only already existing databases, and there would be no new requirement to carry any type of national identity card.
Secure identity verification would protect jobs and save money. In 1997, identity theft cost consumers and financial institutions $745 million, according to the U.S. Secret Service, which has jurisdiction over many financial crimes. Identity theft has more than doubled in the last few years, and now affects nearly 600,000 people, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
In today's world, the question is not whether there will be systems of identification, but whether they will be secure enough to protect honest, law-abiding citizens and to keep aliens illegally in the country from easily assuming false identities and passing themselves off as legal residents or in legal work status.
Secure identification documents and verification are essential to controlling the border.
The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (USCIR) recommended to Congress in 1994 that action be taken to reduce fraudulent access to “breeder documents,” such as birth certificates, and that greater penalties be adopted for those producing or selling fraudulent documents. Those recommendations were still unmet at the time of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Even earlier, a 1990 General Accounting Office report and the 1992 report of the U.S. Commission on Agricultural Workers found that fraudulent identification documents were undermining the effectiveness of the employer sanctions system for denying jobs to illegal aliens. The GAO report also asserted that the lack of a secure verification process could lead to discrimination against people who are eligible to work in the U.S.
“The blatant and widespread use of fraudulent documents has made it a simple matter for an illegal alien to present himself or herself, convincingly, to an employer as an authorized worker, or even as a citizen. [So it is] important that we create some form of a fraud resistant work-authorization system. The documents most commonly used today to verify work authority (the Social Security number card and state-issued driver's licenses and identity cards) are easily counterfeited and can be purchased on the street corners of most any border town or major city of the United States. We need something much more secure.”
Senator Alan Simpson Denver Post March 8, 1998
Because we have no comprehensive secure document verification system that allows employers to screen out illegal foreign workers, the number of illegal aliens in the country has skyrocketed to between nine and eleven million. This huge, shadowy, illegal population provides abundant opportunities for international terrorists to camouflage their illicit activities, as well as a potential group for recruitment.
The enormous illegal immigrant population also is costing the American taxpayer billions of dollars. In 1996, when there were thought to be about five million illegal residents, the cost was estimated at $20 billion after subtracting for the tax payments of those workers. It could be double that today.
There is no reason that the nation has to put up with this scandalous situation. The ability to deny jobs to illegal immigrants - the primary magnate fueling the tidal wave - is a given, because a similar screening effort has been done effectively for years by state and local governments in order to deny welfare benefits to people illegally residing in the country. This fact led Congress in 1996 to instruct the INS to establish pilot programs to test how a document screening system by employers could best be made verifiable. The INS has tested three pilot programs, and an outside contractor began an evaluation of the programs in 1997 but did not complete it until January 2002, after Congress had already voted to extend the period of testing of the trial programs another two years. The INS did not send it to Congress until a year after its receipt.
A secure verification system can be easily implemented. To work in the United States, people must furnish a Social Security number or tax ID number. The data in each Social Security file contains sufficient information to determine whether the person using the number is the person to whom it was issued. The technology is readily and cheaply available to verify that a new employee has presented a valid number and that it belongs to that person; this concept was the basis for the primary document verification system tested by the INS. (The only additional verification is for foreigners, for whom approval to work here is obtained from the INS.)
In the INS's Basic Pilot project, verification has been carried out through the use of a computer data transmission to the Social Security Administration (SSA). Employers receive a verification code confirming a new employee's eligibility. If confirmation is denied, the new employee has the opportunity to reconcile the discrepancy with the SSA. This is to prevent data entry errors from unjustly jeopardizing a job. Only if the employee fails to reconcile a non-verification does the employer receive a notification denying the eligibility of the employee to hold the job. In the pilot project, when this happened, the employee usually had already abandoned the job.
Officials say that the official eason for not proceding expeditiously from the voluntary pilot project to a national mandatory system is that neither the Social Security Administration nor the immigration agency is currently capable of administering a program for all employers and that several additional years would be needed to develop and implement such a system. Yet the verification program is no more complex than the student status verification program that is now operational.
Updated October 2002