False Positives Would Cripple Electronic Employment Verification
from the your-papers-please dept
My Cato colleague Jim Harper has a new paper looking at proposals to implement a nationwide electronic "employment eligibility verification" program. This was one of the key elements of last year's immigration proposals. Under the EEV program, every employer in the United States would have had to submit the names and Social Security numbers of new hires to a centralized government database. The system would match the submitted information against various databases, and return an answer to the employer about whether the employee could be hired. Employees who received a negative answer would be required to go hat in hand to a federal bureaucracy, seeking to prove their "eligibility" for employement.
While Jim doesn't quite put it this way, the fundamental problem with a system like this is that it would inevitably face a difficult trade-off between false-positive and false-negative errors. Strictly enforcing the rules will deprive many eligible workers -- including American citizens -- of the ability to make a living. A single mis-typed digit during data entry could cause an American citizen weeks of grief the next time he tried to change jobs. On the other hand, if the system errs on the side of caution and allows workers to continue working while their paperwork is straightened out, many illegal immigrants would slip through the filters. My guess is that as soon as a significant number of American citizens started being deprived of their right to work -- or required to spend days arguing with federal bureaucrats to clear their names -- the DHS would face intense political pressure to loosen the rules. But if the rules aren't going to be strictly enforced, what's the point of having the system in the first place?
Jim also points out that electronic verification would greatly increase incentives for identity fraud. If getting a job required presenting the name and social security number of a legal worker, this would create a lucrative new revenue source for information gleaned from the data breaches that have become a fact of modern life. (And it doesn't help that the Real ID Act itself creates additional vulnerabilities to privacy breaches) American citizens -- especially those with Hispanic surnames -- would begin discovering that illegal immigrants were applying for jobs with their names and Social Security numbers. And because the DHS wouldn't have any easy way of determining whose identification was real and whose was fraudulent, these legal workers would be fired unless they could prove their identity to the satisfaction of federal bureaucrats within a few days of starting work. Thankfully, this debacle was avoided when Congress failed to pass immigration legislaton last year. But the issue will inevitably come up again, and when it does, it would be good to give more scrutiny to proposals to put a federal bureaucracy in charge of deciding who is "eligible" to earn a living.