One ‘Get Tough’ Immigration Amendment May Go Too Far

Fawn Johnson

A Senate amendment to a sweeping immigration bill would make it nearly impossible for people without papers to get hired without an employer’s knowledge. It would close the last remaining loopholes that undocumented immigrants could exploit to get hired for legitimate jobs.

And it’s probably not going to get a vote.

That’s because the amendment, proposed by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, makes people nervous. The underlying bill already mandates electronic verification of newly hired employees. But how would you feel if you had to tell your future employer your first pet’s name or your high school prom date just to prove you are who you say you are?

Portman insists he can’t vote “yes” on the immigration bill without his amendment. But time is running out for a Thursday or Friday Senate vote on final passage. Senate leaders are already setting up the finale with votes to end debate Wednesday. Additional votes on individual amendments are unlikely, Senate aides say.

Electronic verification is considered an essential piece of immigration enforcement among virtually all policy makers. The Senate’s E-Verify requirement would find any mismatches between names and Social Security numbers of new hires. The House Judiciary Committee is voting on a similar E-Verify bill Wednesday.

Identity theft, in which a newly hired worker uses another person’s name and Social Security to get past the electronic-verification system, is still a problem in both the House and Senate bills. The House bill would require the Social Security Administration to “lock” a person’s Social Security number if it shows unusual multiple uses. The Senate bill encourages a photo-matching system.

Portman’s amendment goes further, but its changes could cause headaches for some employers with limited technology and raise concerns among privacy advocates. Tech employers are gung ho for Portman’s suggestions, but unions and some business groups are not thrilled with them, according to lobbying and congressional sources. For the lawmakers who care most about the whole immigration package, Portman’s vote on final passage might not be worth the tumult.

Portman wants to incorporate a photo-matching tool into E-Verify so that an employer can compare an employee’s photo on a passport, for example, with a photo in an E-Verify database that either comes from immigration officials or from states that supply driver’s license photos. It’s not a requirement now for states to give driver’s license photos to the Homeland Security Department, and most of them don’t. Portman’s amendment would double the grant money to encourage states to cooperate, but the actual dollar figures—from $250 million to $500 million—may not be worth it for states.

According to Portman, 60 percent of people in the United States don’t have proof-of-authentication documents that can be matched with photos in the DHS database. Under his amendment, they would be subjected to knowledge-based questions designed to authenticate the person’s identity: What is your mother’s maiden name? Which of these past phone numbers is yours?

There is the possibility of such questions popping up in the employment verification process under the Senate bill as is, but the language is so vague that it probably wouldn’t happen without further congressional nudging.