Identity Crisis: If the Government Is Serious about Keeping Illegal Immigrants from Working, a National ID Card May Be Inevitable

By Sutherland, Daniel W. | Reason, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Identity Crisis: If the Government Is Serious about Keeping Illegal Immigrants from Working, a National ID Card May Be Inevitable


Sutherland, Daniel W., Reason


Last November, Republican Rep. Robert Dornan lost his Orange County, California, congressional seat by 984 votes. A former test pilot, actor, and talk show host nicknamed "B-1 Bob" could not be expected to step quietly into retirement. The day after the election, the fiery former presidential candidate called a press conference to charge his opponent, Loretta Sanchez, with stealing the election. He claimed there had been widespread voter fraud, that thousands of non-citizens had gone to the polls to support Sanchez.

Little did Dornan know that, in addition to sparking a fascinating congressional investigation, his case would expose fundamental weaknesses in one of the most sweeping programs regulating private employment decisions ever implemented by the federal government. The attempt to document his charges would show that the Immigration and Naturalization Service is not up to the task of making sure that new employees are legally authorized to work in this country. In fact, notwithstanding the reassurances of politicians who back such a verification program, any serious attempt to meet this goal will require some form of national ID card.

Dornan's supporters focused their attention on Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a company hired by the INS to help immigrants prepare for the citizenship test. The Hispanic advocacy group was paid to teach immigrants a few highlights of American history, explain how our government is organized, and drill them on practice tests. It also did something for which it was not paid: It registered the immigrants to vote. The evidence suggested that several hundred noncitizens may have voted in Dornan's district, the vast majority for Sanchez.

Dornan eagerly shared this discovery with his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, and the House Oversight Committee launched an investigation. Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) came up with a logical idea: Why not compare the INS's list of legal immigrants with the Orange County voter rolls? If more than 984 people appeared on both lists, a new election would be necessary. In late April, Thomas sent a letter to the INS requesting this information.

Thomas's letter put Clinton administration officials in an awkward position. They certainly did not want to assist an investigation that might overturn the election of a new ally, and they were especially reluctant to help a man perhaps best known for loudly challenging the president's integrity and patriotism. Administration officials were tempted to argue that inherent limitations in INS databases prevented them from assisting the investigation.

But claiming that INS databases were unreliable would jeopardize another Clinton administration priority: cracking down on illegal immigration. Under the administration's pilot "employment verification project," an employer who wants to hire someone claiming to be a legal immigrant types information about the applicant into a computer linked to the INS. The INS computer checks the name against its databases and electronically confirms whether or not the person is eligible to work. In other words, at the same time that Thomas was asking the INS to verify the immigration status of new voters, the administration was promoting a project that supposedly could verify the immigration status of new workers. Even more inconvenient was the fact that the project was being tested at several hundred companies in Dornan's congressional district.

After several weeks of stalling followed by congressional subpoenas, the administration finally settled on a strategy. On May 21, Thomas received a letter from INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, stating that the INS could not confirm the immigration status of new voters. "Since INS data have been assembled in many places over many years in different formats," Meissner wrote, "a simple electronic match will not produce completely reliable information."

She claimed developing a reliable list of ineligible voters would require INS employees to search both computer and paper files, a process that would take months. …

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