Bait-and-Switch Immigration Enforcement

The Senate’s draft omnibus bill on immigration reform and border security is what the military might call a “target-rich environment.” There are so many bad provisions that it’s difficult to determine which is the worst.

One top contender, though, is that the bill would establish a massive, electronic database that would require every American to check in with Washington before taking a job.

This must rank as one of the most inefficient, ineffective, expensive, unnecessary and dangerous proposals lawmakers have ever come up with.

In a sense, they’re engaging in the oldest con in the world — promising us something too good to be true.

You see, the draft immigration law offers a “silver bullet” to ensure that people who have entered or remain in the U.S. illegally cannot get a job.

It would require the Department of Homeland Security to build a national electronic system that every employer in the United States would have to use to verify that any person they hire is entitled to get a job. Yet Congress already knows this idea is unlikely to work.

That’s because the Department of Homeland Security already has an electronic worker verification system. It is called Basic Pilot, and a decade of experience with the program illustrates why trying to shoehorn every employer into an electronic verification system is a really bad idea.

Congress created Basic Pilot in 1996 as a part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. It was born along with the Citizen Attestation Verification Pilot and the Machine Readable Document Pilot programs with the goal of allowing companies to electronically verify that newly hired employees were eligible to work.

Participation in the program is voluntary, and although about 6,000 companies are registered, less than half actually use the program.

Basic Pilot has already shown it doesn’t stop illegals from getting jobs. Most are able to circumvent the system through document fraud. They often present a valid address, name or Social Security number as their own. Basic Pilot, however, has never been able to identify imposters or stop unauthorized workers from creating false documentation, nor can it hinder employers from illegally hiring unauthorized workers.

Besides, even if the program worked, it’s unnecessary.

Relatively few professions are open to undocumented workers. They tend to work in construction, not consulting, in agriculture, not accounting. There’s no reason to saddle all employers with the costs of electronic verification. It would be better to focus on the employers that habitually (and intentionally) break the law. Our government can do that with existing information systems.

Basic Pilot is also impractical. The notion that Washington could take a program that oversees a few thousand companies and expand it to seven million employers nationwide in 18 months is laughable.

Given the often inaccurate and outdated data in Social Security Administration records and the traditional poor performance of government information technology programs, chances are that a small percentage of false records would affect millions of Americans who have a legitimate right to work. This would also cause an unacceptable loss of productivity totaling billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, it would be intrusive. Basic Pilot has already run afoul of legitimate privacy concerns.

A national program would have unprecedented problems. Both the government and employers would have access to massive databases of information, which would surely tempt some to traffic in identity theft or exploit data for other malicious purposes.

At the same time, electronic verification of every single U.S. worker would end up costing a lot. Not only would the infrastructure of building a technology system that could handle millions of transactions be expensive, but providing training, insurance, oversight and redress would take years to implement and prove incredibly expensive.

Supporters of the bill seem to have accepted an electronic workplace verification requirement as a trade for granting amnesty to millions living illegally in the United States. These lawmakers don’t seem too worried about the program’s predictable shortfalls.

As soon as the law is passed, they’re likely to work to make sure a national system is never implemented. Here, the history of the REAL ID Act is instructive. REAL ID requires national standards for driver’s licenses, including a certification that the receiver of the license is a U.S. citizen or a legitimate visitor, such as someone on a long-term visa.

Many of the same politicians who support the Senate draft immigration bill are also trying to gut the requirements of REAL ID. No doubt the proposed electronic verification system would suffer the same fate (and deservedly so).

Our country needs immigration reform. But it doesn’t need an ineffective, intrusive and expensive new system to keep track of legal employees.

James Jay Carafano, Ph. D., a retired Army Lt. Col., is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation (

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.