Screening People Electronically - Technical Successes, Political Failures

By David Simcox
Volume 9, Number 2 (Winter 1998-1999)
Issue theme: "Secure identification and immigration enforcement"

A Mexican citizen driving a late model car bearing a machine-readable border crossing tag approaches a U.S. border checkpoint, using the tag-only express inspection lane. A scanner "reads" the electronic tag on her car and relays an image to U.S. immigration and customs computers at the inspection point. It shows the owner's name, photo, personal data and specifics on the car, as well as any significant antecedents.


David Simcox is chairman of the Policy Board of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank. He is a frequent author on immigration, population and identification subjects, including the 1989 Center for Immigration Studies publication, "Secure Identification A National Need -- A Must for Immigration Control." Most vehicles get an immediate wave through as intended when the computer confirms the identity of the car, the occupant, and the validity of her visa or border crossing card. This vehicle, however, is stopped. An immigration official has noticed that the computerized photo of the authorized vehicle operator does not match the driver. Further inspection confirms that the driver, who states she borrowed the car, lacks documents to enter and that she has made unauthorized use of Medicaid in past visits. She is returned to Mexico and the person lending the car is investigated for violating the conditions of the electronic tag. A look out notice is appended to that tag number in the computer's data.

Another new INS system at ports of entry (INSPASS) uses computer matching of hand geometry to admit frequent foreign visitors to the United States, speeding the process and reducing the number of inspectors needed.

At its southern California stations, the U.S. Border Patrol now uses automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) to record all apprehended illegal aliens. The fingerprint files, more than a million of them captured in the first year of the IDENT system's operation, are valuable for tracking criminal aliens and multiple violators, and for intelligence on border crossing routes and methods.

Such advances as these in identification science and instant computer verification that have made checking the crush of entrants more efficient and credible also give new hope for developing more comprehensive high-tech systems for instantly distinguishing between those who do not belong in the United States and those who do.

Rising costs of traditional methods, public concern over illegal immigration and alien crime, and diminished concern over possible invasions of privacy have energized the search for better automated systems to protect the borders. The success of Proposition 187 in California in 1994 focused Congress on illegal immigration as never before. Nevertheless, Washington's political will to use these technologies still lags behind the parade of new opportunities they are presenting. Latent ambivalence over both privacy and effective immigration enforcement makes politicians leery of systems that might be too efficient.

Secure Identification Advances in the 105th Congress

Even so, official interest in adopting efficient systems is the keenest in 30 years that immigration has been a core public concern. Public, and thus Congressional demand for action were apparent in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA). That legislation has 36 new provisions relating to deterrence of document fraud, making identification more secure, and establishing or improving data bases of different non-citizen populations and their hosts and sponsors.

These important innovations in the 1996 act reflect considerable determination among law-makers to end abuses of identification systems and vital records that in the past have been accepted as a given.

Fraudulent Voting

For the first time federal immigration law addresses the problem of preventing non-citizens from voting, a matter formerly left to the states. The reforms include stiff penalties, including liability to deportation, for non-citizens who vote in federal elections, or who make false claims of citizenship to obtain any government benefit, including voting.

Birth and Death Certificate Abuse

The act takes on the pervasive fraud in vital records kept by the states. States must consult with the federal executive branch to develop standards for birth certificates to be used by federal agencies. After four years federal agencies will be barred from accepting birth certificates that do not meet the higher standards.

Also mandated is Federal aid for pilot projects by states to match birth and death certificates, to curb the "borrowing" of identities from the deceased. The 1996 law has a dozen or more provisions on document fraud, extending the definition, adding or increasing penalties, making violators subject to deportation and property forfeitures, and granting investigators wiretap and subpoena authorities.

Federal Standards for Drivers License Security

In perhaps its most controversial provision, the 1996 act requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish format and standards of identification security for state drivers' licenses. Starting in 2000, licences and ID cards will be acceptable for Federal use only if they contain the bearer's social security number and meet Federal identification and security standards.

Federal rule making on this provision has been contentious. Twenty-nine states never have had or have removed the social security numbers from their licences for privacy reasons and a number now strongly oppose restoring it. Critics in Congress and the privacy movement are calling the project a "national ID card." A possible compromise is creation of a new unique number for the licenses and the related State ID using only part of the social security number.

Monitoring Foreign Students

INS's oversight of foreign students and their university hosts for years has been a story of neglect - with chronic overstays, sizable numbers out-of-status or at large, millions of dollars in undeserved federal subsidies, crime and even terrorism. In 1997 Senate testimony, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) expressed grave reservations about the State Department's practice of issuing visas to terrorist supporting countries and "the INS inability to track those who come into the country using student visas. She charged that between 1991 and 1996 the State Department issued nearly ten thousand student visas to citizens of five terrorist-supporting nations in the Middle East and Africa. Concern over crime and terrorism impelled FBI Director Louis Freeh in 1996 to insist on tighter controls on the half-million foreign students here.

The law called for a pilot system for electronic reporting and monitoring of information on foreign students and exchange visitors, such as identity, whereabouts, academic status, and disciplinary actions. Schools and programs not complying become ineligible for non-immigrant students.

INS, which along with the Departments of State and Education and the U.S. Information Service is a lead agency in the pilot, is now testing a prototype Internet reporting system that will track each student from his initial admission to a U.S. college to his completion of studies and departure or, for many, his transition to permanent resident status. INS and the cooperating universities will jointly produce an ID card for each student admitted, using bar code and magnetic stripe technology.

The system, known bureaucratically as CIPRIS (Coordinated Interagency Program for the Regulation of International Students), is being tested at 22 schools in four southern states. While the technical aspects are promising, the collection and updating of the information will depend on the compliance of often recalcitrant university officials in reporting the data.

Better Checks at the Border and on Non-Immigrant Overstays

Particularly controversial in U.S. border regions are two IIRAIRA provisions tightening entry controls. The first is a new laser visa that is machine- readable and has a biometric identifier to be verified at each entry. This document will replace older and often abused versions of border crossing cards issued to some half-million Mexicans.

The laser visa drew little attention when it was legislated. But as the cost and certification demands it will impose on users have become clear, objections have grown among local government, business and ethnic interests in the Southwest. Nothing alarms these interests more than the prospect that immigration control might really work; many illegal immigrants are their customers and clients. They also argue that tighter controls and the high cost of the laser visa (about $42) will slow the flow of Mexican shoppers.

Similar local hostility plagues the second major advance in entry control in the law a process to track the departures of all non-immigrant visitors from the United States as a way of curbing the overstays that account for about 40 percent of the annual growth of the illegal alien population. Border state legislators, led by Senator Abraham of Michigan, managed in 1998 to delay implemen-tation of the project for overland traffic for two and a half years. Civic and business groups at border cities complained that gathering data from departees would slow international traffic and hurt business.

Denying Benefits to the Ineligible

In 1986 Congress mandated INS to create a screening system - "SAVE" - to keep ineligible aliens from getting public assistance benefits. The 1996 law expands the definition of federal benefits to cover such services as drivers' and professional licenses, social security, and student aid. And it further strengthens the information collection needed to make this process work.

Social Security Numbers for Immigration Enforcement

To the unease of privacy advocates, the 1996 law creates new enforcement uses for the social security number (SSN) and lays new verification tasks on the Social Security Administration (SSA), which has long resisted such obligations. SSA must develop a way of matching names and SSN's of job applicants with its records to verify that each SSN is valid for employment - what many regard as a necessary step toward a national worker verification system. SSN's submitted by applicants for new drivers license will be verified by SSA.

The INS is given full authority to require aliens to provide their SSN's for inclusion in INS records. The wonder here is that INS in the more than twelve years since employer sanctions legislation has lacked this authority, relying instead on its own more limited "A- number" series. In keeping with the "immigrant responsibility" features of the 1996 act, sponsors of aliens must now put their social security numbers on affidavits of support for intending immigrants. The alien sponsored is ineligible to naturalize until the sponsor has cleared his debt for any public benefits paid to that alien.

Two more useful provisions of the act fall in the category of "Why-haven't-we-been-doing-it-all-along?" SSA must now report annually on social security numbers that show earnings although they are not valid for work in the United States. SSA was also required to report to the Attorney General on the extent of fraudulent use of social security numbers and cards by aliens.

One of the 1996 law's most portentous provisions directed SSA to develop a prototype of a durable, counterfeit-resistant social security card that provides reliable proof of citizenship or legal residence. Completing its study in 1997, SSA has responded with not one, but seven prototypes of cards, varying as to costs, security features, information storage systems and capacities, and biometrics. They would be issued to an estimated 277 million current card holders over three to ten years at an estimated cost of $5.2 billion to $10.5 billion.1

Criminal Aliens

When it comes to detecting and removing criminal aliens, Congress since the late '80s has been less dissuaded by privacy or civil rights arguments. The 1996 law calls for a registry of aliens on probation or parole. It also makes the provision of false documents to terrorists an excludable act. The act directs INS to operate an around-the-clock system that federal, state and local authorities can use to identify criminal aliens. The system must include the fingerprints of convicted aliens previously arrested or removed from the country.

Other Signs of Progress Toward Better Data and Identification

Despite privacy concerns, Congress has generally shown more willingness since 1990 to approve new data bases and systems of identification and monitoring, many of which have potential applications to immigration control. A decade ago most of them would have lacked political support. Time now seems to be on the side of those favoring using more of the country's technological options for law enforcement.

Consider some of the new government data bases and ID systems authorized since 1990.

* The National Voter Registration Act - "Motor-Voter" of 1993 in some ways moved voter registration further toward a pure honor system. However, the law encourages central state voter registries as sources of data and to eliminate duplicate, ineligible and fraudulent registrations.2

* The 1996 Welfare Reform Law buttressed the Federal Parent Locator system by authorizing a National Directory of New Hires as a tool for tracking down deadbeat parents for child support. As now written, the law will not permit INS use of the data that would otherwise be so suitable for computer matching.

* The Federal Aviation Agency required airline passenger identification and profiling in its new Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system.

* The states, working with the FBI, have in large part met the Brady Law's requirement for a National Registry of Felons a key data base for instant background checks. "Instant-Check" went into effect on December 1.

Congress had passed a comprehensive welfare reform act which established centralized monitoring of all new hires in the nation to track deadbeat parents, with little debate of its effects on privacy or business.

* Changes in Internal Revenue Service, SSA, and Department of Agriculture laws and regulations have required higher identification security standards or tighter computer matching to curb fraud and abuse. SSA must have a system to link the SSN's of parents with those of their children and must improve its "death registry" and make it more accessible to other user agencies.

* The use of machine readable, tamper-proof ID documents, drivers and pilots licenses, U.S. visas and passports with digitized photos and signatures or fingerprints has grown rapidly in the 1990s.

Electronic Verification of New Hires - Technically Proven But Politically Shelved

Regrettably, the progress in so many areas of identification and computer matching has not been matched by progress in automated enforcement of employer sanctions - the ultimate test of Washington's commitment to real immigration reform.

The record is 12 years of temporizing and disappointment. A document-based verification system was first recommended in 1979 by the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy - the Hesburgh Commission. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) required consultations with Congress before the executive could move toward such a system. (That legislation, like its counterpart in 1996 explicitly forbade a national ID card.) The Barbara Jordan Commission on Immigration in 1994 unambiguously recom-mended a phone-in or point-of-sale verification system.

National Identification Systems Despite Much Support, a Political Scarecrow

But now, nearly a generation since the Hesburgh Commission, and despite extensive new immigrant identification requirements legislated in 1996, an automated verification system remains voluntary and experimental only. Senator Alan Simpson and Congressman Lamar Smith tried to include mandatory electronic verification in the 1996 law. But a coalition of Libertarian, Catholic, conservative Christian, small business, ethnic, privacy, gun owner and general "anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-police state" groups forced Congress to keep electronic verification voluntary and experimental. The defeat was decisive. In the House only 86 Representatives supported it.

Grover Norquist, a potent conservative lobbyist against immigration controls, successfully demonstrated how to evoke fears of Big Brother. Lobbyists circulated simulated tattoos of bar codes to evoke Nazi concentration camps. They alarmed fundamentalist Christians with the notion that the proposed ID system was "the mark of the beast" warned of in the Book of Revelation. "A government powerful enough to find an illegal alien is also "The government can find your bank account, and your earnings and tax compliance, driving record, criminal history and credit performance, but cannot (is not allowed to) find an illegal alien."powerful enough to find your bank account," proclaimed Norquist.3

The deliberate confusion of the debate is striking here, as well as the selectivity with which politicians can play the privacy card. The same year, Congress had passed a comprehensive welfare reform act which established centralized monitoring of all new hires in the nation to track deadbeat parents, with little debate of its effects on privacy or business. Norquist's statement would have been accurate if reversed "The government can find your bank account, and your earnings and tax compliance, driving record, criminal history and credit performance, but cannot (is not allowed to...) find an illegal alien."

Positive Identification Initiatives Elsewhere in The 1996 Law

The Social Security Administration is now obliged by statute to ensure a computer matching system capable of verifying that an SSN is valid for employment in ten days or less. This is a critical building block if Congress ever finds the courage to move to a national verification system. The law cuts the confusing list of 25 documents acceptable to prove identity and work eligibility to 13 - for instance eliminating the eminently falsifiable birth certificate and the no-questions-asked voters' registration card.

Recent budget increases have allowed the INS to double the number of its investigators to about 650 nationwide, a move long delayed by anti-sanctions legislators. In 1995 INS admitted that its small staff of 300 investigators nationwide was able to follow-up on only about 20 to 30 percent of the leads on possible violations provided by the Department of Labor. INS investigations of employers slumped from 14,700 a year in 1989 to 5,960 in 1995.4

Until now the process has relied on employers to assess in good faith a melange of easily falsified identity and immigration documents presented by new hires, running the risk of discrimination suits if they are too conscientious. The new law keeps the employer as adjudicator, but limits his "good faith" defense and shields him better against discrimination charges. Employers will now face criminal penalties if they knowingly hire ten or more illegal aliens brought in by smugglers.

INS planning and testing of prototype telephone verification systems (TVS) since 1991 give solid evidence that they will work. Voluntary electronic verification tests started with nine employers in two California cities and expanded into five states. The 1996 law extended the pilot for four years to cover 2000 employers in five states in industries prone to hiring illegals - meat-packing, garments, hotels, and poultry. In its initial California pilot the verification system had preliminary "hits" on 20 to 25 percent of alien workers screened and nearly 10 percent were ultimately found to lack work authorization.5

By 1996, the expanded California pilot had screened 11,400 aliens and found 25 percent lacking valid work papers.6 A weakness of these pilots was that job applicants claiming U.S. citizenship were not screened. The latest pilot, however, provides for verification of claimants of citizenship, and a new test of electronic verification using machine-readable drivers' licenses.

Backers of the 1985 IRCA assumed the employers, with proper encouragement, would voluntarily refrain from hiring illegals, making extensive verification systems unnecessary. The persistence and spread of illegal aliens in the work place proves this false. Voluntary compliance works for 90 percent of the nation's six million-plus covered employers, boasts the INS. (Labor Department inspectors, however, put the figure at 47 percent). But a hard-core of more than half-million employers will never be interested in voluntary compliance, notes Saskia Sassen, Columbia University scholar of the underground economy. "On the contrary, these places can only exist under an umbrella of violations" of immigration and other workplace laws.7 Continued failure to enforce sanctions can only drive their competitors to also seek savings through cheap, illegal workers.

Can Mandatory Electronic Verification become the Law of the Land?

Congressional foot-dragging is likely to persist. America's economic boom has dulled public concern about immigration, and a tighter labor markets makes the climate bad for strict controls on hiring. The sense of urgency Congress felt in the wake of Proposition 187 in 1994 has eased. Subsequent Republican electoral losses in California attributed by some part to the party's actions against immigrants have become a pretext for passivity.

Privacy concerns may be uninformed, but they are real among important sectors, and can easily be used by high-immigration advocates to mobilize a range of otherwise supportive constituencies. Public fear of intrusions on privacy will continue to be played on selectively.

Another source of paralysis is the widespread conviction that no system intended to keep illegal aliens out of the workplace will really work, that the underground economy is part of life. The 140-million person labor force and the nearly six million employers seem to many like a mission impossible when compared to INS capability with less than 700 investigators. INS's own history of faulty record-keeping and undistinguished use of automated data systems inspire little confidence.

Yet core public concerns remain that will continue to boost demand for efficient and reliable identification systems for immigration control. Alarm over foreign-based crime and drug smuggling has not faded, while recent events have aroused the public over terrorism.

Even in prosperity, the public also remains concerned over the real and potential welfare and public assistance costs of unselected immigrants and overcrowding in the public school system. Both this concern and the fear of job completion are likely to swell again when the economy cools.

A more recent and likely persistent concern is the effect of massive uncontrolled immigration on such domestic institutions as citizenship and elections. Public sentiment suggests we may be having a resurgence of the new progressive-type reform movement to protect the uniqueness of citizenship and the integrity of the electoral process. There are parallels. The original late 19th-century reform movement, which produced such safeguards as voter registration, was a broad response to the rise of corrupt urban machine politics that often drew its power from the era's massive and unselective immigration into the cities.

Political success will go to those who manage to convince the public that employer sanctions, no less than border controls, are indispensable to allaying these concerns and enhancing our national security.


1. Social Security Administration. Report to Congress Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card. SSA Publication No. 12-002, September 1997. See also a review of the report on page 83 of this issue of The Social Contract.

2. Federal Electoral Commission. Developing a Statewide Voter Registration Database. Washington Government Printing Office, Autumn 1997.

3. Marcus Stern. "Jobs Magnet." San Diego Union-Tribune, July 5, 1998.

4. Women's Wear Daily, February 2, 1995.

5. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Press Release, February 21, 1995.

6. New York Times, May 24, 1996.

7. New York Times, February 2, 1995.




Polls have shown that a majority of the American public supports the concept of a national ID card, but that the opposition to it is concentrated among the nation's elites -- professionals and business persons, college graduates, and those with high incomes, generally those groups most secure in their identity and status. A 1983 Gallup poll asked whether " everyone in the United States should be required to carry an ID card, such as a Social Security Card, or not?" Sixty-six percent of all respondents favored the card, and 31 percent opposed.

Gallup asked a similar question in 1993 whether respondents favored or opposed "Requiring all U.S. citizens and legal residents to have national ID cards to distinguish them from illegal immigrants?" . This time 57 percent favored the cards, and 41 percent opposed. In both polls, nonwhite respondents favored the cards more than did whites, though the proposal had majority support among both racial groupings. In 1983 Hispanic support for the card (77 percent) was significantly higher than among other ethnicities.

Hispanic opinion was not discretely measured in the 1993 poll, but it showed "immigrants" favoring the ID card 72 percent to 25 percent.1 A 1995 Gallup poll showed 62 percent of Americans favored a requirement "that all citizens and legal residents have a national ID card to distinguish them from illegal immigrants." Thirty-seven percent opposed. The 1995 poll had no breakdown by sub-groups.2

1 a) Gallup survey 226-G, Q5b of October, 1983

b) Gallup survey 1005 of June, 1993.

2 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll of July 9, 1995

About the author

David Simcox is chairman of the Policy Board of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank. He is a frequent author on immigration, population, and identification subjects, including the 1989 Center for Immigration Studies publication, 'Secure Identification A National Need -- A Must for Immigration Control.'