National ID Proponents’ Bad Arguments

America’s new national identification system is coming. President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators want to enact a national identification card that would link to a database containing your name, Social Security number and biometric information such as pictures and fingerprints. The Washington Post editorial board wants one too.

Two points are central to their argument: 1) this identification system is a necessary, effective and appropriate way to control illegal immigration, and 2) it will be used strictly for employment purposes. Both claims lack any credibility.

Is it necessary?

The Post claims there are only two ways to end illegal immigration: border security or a national ID. But that’s not true. If we simply created an accessible legal avenue for entry, such as we had during the early 1960s, illegal immigration could be eliminated. The same amount of border enforcement with hundreds of thousands of fewer border crossers would secure the border and end illegal immigration.

Is it effective?

“If illegal immigrants can’t get jobs, they won’t come to this country,” The Post editors reason. That’s largely true, but a national ID mandate does not eliminate work — it simply makes legal work contingent on having a card. Immigrants could still work in the black market, as nearly half already do.

The Post’s solution? “Prosecute employers.” The president wants to “crack down” on them. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., wants to “throw the book at them.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., wants them “punished.” All this animus against employers plays better politically than an anti-immigrant rant but is no more sensible. There are two problems with this logic.

First, are we really going to prosecute every American who hires someone without an ID? When was the last time you checked your gardener or plumber’s identification? Second, criminalizing an activity doesn’t eliminate it — it just increases its cost. Research has shown that employers simply transfer this added cost, the risk of penalties, onto unauthorized employees, which lowers their wages but doesn’t end their job (Massey, p. 120).

Thus, illegal employment will continue, but the proposal would not even eliminate legal employment either for them either. It just makes it contingent on showing ID. But the last 27 years have shown that this requirement only creates huge markets for fraudulent documents. In other words, we’re building black markets on top of black markets.

The president claims this card will be “fraud-resistant” and “tamper-resistant.” But this is nonsense. No one knows what “fraud-resistant” will mean next year, let alone next decade. In April 1998, for example, immigrants were issued “fraud-resistant” green cards that contained holograms and photos. By August 1999, fakes were already in use in Los Angeles.

Is it appropriate?

Even if it was effective, this solution is not appropriate. First, employers are not federal immigration agents. The Constitution states it is the executive’s job to “execute the law,” not conscript private parties to execute it. Treating private enterprise as a fourth branch of government is exactly the sort of thing conservatives always have opposed: business owners are neither federal social workers nor immigration agents.

Second, a national identification card in any form or fashion—whether paid for by taxes or through fees—imposes the cost of immigration enforcement on American citizens. Law enforcement is supposed to protect Americans, not impose on them additional costs, estimated at $40 billion, and responsibilities, such as obtaining and maintaining their card. It makes a Americans’ fundamental right to employment dependent on a card.

But it’s just for employment, right?

Schumer claims his proposal is not a “national ID card” because “this would only be used in the same cases when you use a Social Security Card.” But he’s wrong. A national ID is any mandatory system that could be used to identify you in any given circumstance. This card in combination with its electronic database could restrict access to anything based immigration status or on any criteria the government chose.

We already have IDs, The Post editors write, “why would another form of ID, used for employment verification, pose such a threat?” They claim concerns about identification by “critics on both the civil-liberties left and the libertarian right” have proven “hallow.”

To believe that this card will not succumb to the same mission creep as the Social Security card—which began as a means to prove eligibility for a retirement benefit with all the same assurances that it would never be used for identity purposes — is downright gullible.

In fact, the very application of the Social Security card to the completely unrelated field of immigration status checks exposes this argument for what it is: nonsense. In fact, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., already has said he wants the ID for national security reasons as well. The Obama administration wants one for monitoring the Internet. Others want it for voting, gun control and much else.

Because this card would link to a database (E-Verify) and the system works better with more information on each person, the government constantly has attempted to centralize ever greater quantities of Americans’ personal information: name, address, Social Security number, employer, worksites, motor vehicle records, driving history and much else. This constant data collection on all Americans is a threat to privacy.

Constant monitoring is not the solution to illegal immigration. Congress should reform America’s immigration laws without imposing the costs of enforcement on American citizens.