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Immigration Reform Needs Solutions for Identity Crisis | Commentary

Immigration reform is far bigger than just immigration. Comprehensive immigration reform would set off a ripple effect beyond the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, requiring several federal, state and local government agencies to prepare for a far-reaching set of activities. Creating a road map for new immigration processes and related implementation is essential. But how long is that road and how do we navigate the curves around identity?

What’s After the First Stop in Immigration Reform?

Getting the initial registration and subsequent application process right for the 11 million to 12 million people who currently live in the U.S. in unlawful status is the first stop on the map. If we succeed there, what comes next? Experience with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals applicants shows that individuals who move from unlawful to lawful status almost immediately turn their attention to other activity that was previously inaccessible to them.

In the case of those going through a comprehensive legalization process, this would certainly include travel outside the United States. (The vast majority of those here in unlawful status have not left the U.S. because they fear — rightly — that if they leave, they will not be allowed back in.) However, it may also include other activities that several different government agencies must be prepared to handle.

It is the applicants’ true and verified identity that will be at the center of these related activities with agencies such as the Department of Transportation, Social Security Administration, IRS and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Identity Will Be a Sharp Curve on Road to Immigration Reform’s Success

In some ways, taking 11 million to 12 million people through a legalization process will feel like having 11 million to 12 million people leaving the Witness Protection Program. Suddenly, there will be large numbers of people accessing formal systems and services in this country who either have no real verifiable data associated with their lives or — worse — have data in place related to a false identity.

How will these people be rectified throughout the U.S. government system and other agencies once they are allowed to live and work legally in our country under their real identities? Can state motor vehicle departments handle large numbers of people coming in to exchange their driver’s licenses for new ones issued in their real names as opposed to ones that might have been issued to false identities? And even if state governments can handle creating a process for such ID “swaps,” will they be compelled to charge the affected individuals with a crime for submitting false information in the first place? What if the fraud was not a victimless crime and another person was harmed because of an unlawful immigrant’s use of false information? Will the identity fraud victims be made whole?

What will it look like to the Transportation Security Administration if these newly legalized immigrants travel in large numbers and start applying for TSA Pre-Check? How will they appear to U.S. Customs and Border Protection if they begin applying for Trusted Traveler programs? This leads us to even more complex questions such as how comprehensive immigration reform participants can access the IRS and the Social Security Administration to get credit for past tax filings and benefit account payments entered under a false identity. Without well-thought-out and well-publicized rules to apply to these coming scenarios, it is unlikely that the relevant government employees at any level will be able to navigate such complexities and interdependencies on their own.

Addressing the Identity Issue in Immigration Reform

As policymakers consider comprehensive immigration reform, they must acknowledge the identity and benefit fraud that has accompanied unlawful immigration over the decades. More importantly, policymakers should clearly state the consequences and remedies that stem from the past identity fraud as legalization applicants pursue subsequent benefits in this country. To maximize the benefit of comprehensive immigration reform to the nation, people need to register and verify their identity as quickly as possible. To achieve that, we must map out for them — clearly and openly — more than just the immediate first step.

Michael J. Petrucelli served as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and is currently the founder and executive chairman of Clearpath, an online immigration startup.

Lora Ries serves as senior principal, directing immigration reform strategy for Computer Sciences Corp.’s North American Public Sector and its Border and Immigration Solutions Center of Excellence.

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