For a na­tional ID card A phased-in bio­met­ric card for all le­gal res­i­dents would help stop il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

THE UNITED STATES has in­vested tens of bil­lions of dol­lars in the past decade alone to foil il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion — tight­en­ing the bor­der, ac­cel­er­at­ing de­por­ta­tions, dep­u­tiz­ing lo­cal po­lice — while do­ing pre­cious lit­tle to stop em­ploy­ers from hir­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants.

That is fix­able — by means of a uni­ver­sal na­tional iden­tity card — and must be fixed as part of any sen­si­ble over­haul of the na­tion’s im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

Crit­ics of im­mi­gra­tion re­form are right that the last big at­tempt to fix the sys­tem, in 1986, was no fix at all. Mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants were given amnesty but with­out any ef­fec­tive pro­vi­sion to stop fu­ture il­le­gal mi­grants from en­ter­ing the coun­try or over­stay­ing their visas.

If the cur­rent at­tempt to re­form the sys­tem in­cludes a pro­vi­sion to le­gal­ize some 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants — and we hope it does — it must not re­peat the mis­take of 1986. That means es­tab­lish­ing mech­a­nisms to en­sure an ad­e­quate sup­ply of le­gal im­mi­grant la­bor, skilled and un­skilled. And it means de­ter­ring unau­tho­rized en­try.

There are two ways to achieve that goal. One is to de­ploy sen­sors, drones and thou­sands more agents along the bor­der, as both the Ge­orge W. Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions have done, to sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect. The other is to make it easy for com­pa­nies to de­tect and re­ject un­doc­u­mented job ap­pli­cants and for the government to pros­e­cute em­ploy­ers who flout the law. If il­le­gal im­mi­grants can’t get jobs, they won’t come to this coun­try.

An ef­fec­tive so­lu­tion would be to is­sue tam­per­proof, bio­met­ric ID cards — us­ing fin­ger­prints or a com­pa­ra­bly unique iden­ti­fier — to all ci­ti­zens and le­gal res­i­dents. Last week, both Pres­i­dent Obama and a bi­par­ti­san group of eight sen­a­tors seek­ing im­mi­gra­tion re­form urged some­thing along those lines, with­out call­ing it a uni­ver­sal na­tional iden­tity card. That’s a ma­jor step for­ward.

The sen­a­tors pro­posed re­quir­ing job ap­pli­cants to demon­strate le­gal sta­tus and iden­tity by “non­forge­able elec­tronic means,” along with “safe­guards to pro­tect Amer­i­can work­ers, pre­vent iden­tity theft, and pro­vide due process pro­tec­tions.” The pres­i­dent pro­posed a “fraud-re­sis­tant, tam­per-re­sis­tant So­cial Se­cu­rity card,” among other se­cure doc­u­ments, to prove work el­i­gi­bil­ity.

Crit­ics on both the civil-lib­er­ties left and the lib­er­tar­ian right have long re­sisted such cards as the em­bod­i­ment of a Big Brother brand of government, om­ni­scient, in­va­sive and ten­tac­u­lar. Their crit­i­cisms ring hol­low.

More than a third of Amer­i­cans (35 per­cent) pos­sess pass­ports, up from just 6 per­cent 20 years ago — and all pass­ports is­sued since 2007 con­tain chips that en­able bio­met­ric use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of pass­ports for for­eign travel has not en­croached on Amer­i­cans’ civil lib­er­ties. Why would an­other form of ID, used for em­ploy­ment ver­i­fi­ca­tion, pose such a threat?

Yes, un­scrupu­lous em­ploy­ers could still ig­nore the law, but do­ing so would be­come riskier and more prone to en­force­ment. Crit­ics con­tend that a na­tional ID would only drive up the cost of coun­ter­feit doc­u­ments. Would they pre­fer that fal­si­fied doc­u­ments are cheap?

A phased-in, re­li­able ID might have other ben­e­fits — for in­stance, to safe­guard vot­ing. That should sat­isfy Repub­li­cans who in­sist that IDs pre­vent fraud at the bal­lot, as well as Democrats who be­lieve Repub­li­cans want to sup­press vot­ing.

In­evitably, there would be glitches and er­rors. But with ef­fec­tive safe­guards for pri­vacy and against government pry­ing, the ben­e­fits would eas­ily out­weigh the costs.

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