WASHINGTON — Senators working on a sweeping immigration bill will likely abandon the idea of a new high-tech ID card for workers because it's too expensive, a key negotiator said.
That means their emerging legislation, which they've promised will crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, likely will seek to expand a little-used system criticized as error-prone and vulnerable to fraud that employers can use to check the legal status of workers, mainly using Social Security numbers.
The system, called E-Verify, is now purely voluntary, and officials with labor and immigrants' rights groups say it would have to be greatly improved before being required nationally.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., members of the bipartisan Senate immigration negotiating group, had championed creation of a biometric ID card instead that would use personal markers such as fingerprints to make it easy for employers to check the status of prospective hires. But Graham said cost estimates came back higher than he expected.
"That seems to have been cost-prohibitive, so we're looking at other ways to achieve the same goal," Graham told reporters this week at the Capitol.
Graham said no final decision had been made on ditching the biometric ID card idea, which had also sparked civil liberties concerns, and he declined to say how much such a card would cost. A study by the University of California, Berkeley Law School's Warren Institute last year estimated start-up costs to the government for such a program would top $22 billion.
For Graham, Schumer and the other six senators trying to finalize an immigration bill by next month, a workable employer verification system is fundamental to legislation that also would secure the border, improve legal immigration and provide eventual citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here. The immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 is often criticized because it legalized nearly 3 million people while offering assurances that employers would have to verify the legal status of workers, but included no real mechanisms to ensure that happened.
Graham said that no amount of border enforcement would stop the flow of illegal immigrants without measures to keep employers from hiring them.
"If you don't control who gets a job, it doesn't matter how high the fence is," Graham said. "The best virtual fence is an employer verification system."
E-Verify was launched as a pilot program in 1997 and now is used by about 7 percent of employers. It's largely voluntary as a federal program but mandatory in some states. Draft immigration legislation by President Barack Obama, which he has said he'll offer if the Senate group doesn't come to agreement quickly enough, would make E-Verify mandatory nationally, and the Senate group is likely to take the same route.
E-Verify allows employers to electronically submit prospective workers' Social Security numbers or other information to be checked against government databases. Critics say it's error-prone because of mistakes in government records and that it has no reliable way to catch someone who is using a fraudulent Social Security number. Immigrants' rights groups also complain that workers can't easily contest disqualifications and that employers have been known to misuse the program by threatening to run workers through E-Verify if they try to organize a union.
The federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, which helps administer the program, says it's gotten progressively easier to use and more accurate.
"Improving the accuracy of the E-Verify system remains our primary goal," Soraya Correa, an associated director at the agency, told a House hearing last month.
But because of how hard it is for a worker to contest a disqualification, critics say any error rate is too high.
"The error rate is low but when applied to the entire American workforce, every workplace in the U.S., that's a problem," said Emily Tulli, an attorney at the National Immigration Law Center. "Only 7 percent of employers are currently utilizing it so if you think about taking that utilization from 7 percent to 93 percent more, it is problematic."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposed E-Verify for years as cumbersome and unwieldy, but recently decided to support it as long as certain protections are in place for businesses. Randy Johnson, the Chamber's senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits, said the program has improved, and for businesses, it's a reasonable price to pay as part of an overall immigration overhaul. Business supports an immigration overhaul in part because it would ensure a reliable workforce.
Businesses "see this E-Verify system as a necessary slice of the pie to move comprehensive immigration reform forward," Johnson said.
If they do expand E-Verify, senators are expected to endorse ways to make it more reliable and better at detecting ID fraud, such as by expanding the use of photo IDs in the system. For many lawmakers, especially Republicans skeptical of immigration legislation, an airtight employer verification system will be necessary for them to be able to support the bill.
But critics are skeptical that any changes would make the program acceptable.
"The system is still too error-prone," said Chris Calabrese, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union. "It will prevent lawfully present Americans from being able to work."