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How to Address the Identification Issue of Immigration Reform | Commentary

As the Senate amends S 744, the immigration reform bill, we suggest paying particular attention to the language around identification. The billís lack of clarity around identity and document verification has already created at least one red herring, recent claims that E-Verifyís photo tool is a precursor to a national biometric database. E-Verify is not a database but rather a method of querying numerous databases managed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the State Department, and federal and state government agencies. And the photo tool has nothing to do with biometrics. Yet, without a reliable method to authenticate citizenship credentials or immigration benefits, Congress and taxpayers cannot reasonably expect the U.S. government to be able to enforce its own immigration laws.

Todayís Document Verification for Employers

E-Verify is a tool to query decentralized databases for the purpose of document verification. These databases include the Department of State, the Social Security Administration and Motor Vehicle departments. The photo tool is designed to allow an employer to compare the data and picture from the database of record (e.g., passports, driverís licenses, visas) with the data and picture on the presented credential. If they match, the document is genuine.

Unfortunately, S 744 does not address the more fundamental problem of identity in the current employment-verification process. There is a difference between document verification and identity authentication. Document verification determines whether a document is genuine. Identity authentication determines whether the person presenting the document is the individual to whom it refers.

The Real Concern: Identity Authentication

Identity authentication is the hard part. The bill continues to require employers to compare a picture that may have been taken five years ago with the face of the individual in front of them. Since 1986, the I-9 employment verification process has depended precisely on this human-identification activity. If the expectation of accurate and consistently reliable photo-to-face matching was reasonable, would the U.S. have such a large population of unauthorized residents?

Unless and until this weak identification process is improved, the intent of employment verification legislation to prevent unauthorized noncitizens from working in the U.S. will not be met. Although S 744 makes E-Verify mandatory, it does not change a process easily subverted by identity fraud.

Recent claims raise the specter of a national biometric database. The real challenge is how to raise the level of confidence in identity and authentication without creating a national ID. The claim, albeit erroneous, that S 744 creates a national biometric database in E-Verify, raises legitimate privacy and liberty concerns.

Protecting Identities and Privacy Without a National Database or ID

What is needed is an identity solution that allows individuals to create and reuse trusted identities in a wide array of contexts, and to ensure that they are the only ones who can authenticate and claim these identities. The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace has called for the development of private sector identity service solutions. The premise is that the individual, rather than the government or commercial-relying party, creates, owns and manages his or her identity using an identity service provider of his or her choice. The model is properly antithetical to a national ID. Instead, it enhances individual privacy.

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