- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

In the summer of 1994, a group with little in common politically began to fulfill an assignment we had not sought. Our bipartisan congressional blue-ribbon panel known as “the Jordan Commission” after our chair, the late Barbara Jordan of Texas, spent three years making commonsense recommendations that remain at the center of our national debate with a radical premise: American immigration is about what “We, the People” want.

Our first recommendation was a bombshell: We proposed employers check employment eligibility based on electronic verification of new hires’ Social Security numbers (SSNs). This created a firestorm of bogus protest about national ID cards and bar-code tattoos. (It even made it into Jay Leno’s monologue in July, a first for us all.) Some in the Clinton administration tried to strangle the idea in its cradle.

And yet just two years later in 1996, Congress enacted, as part of welfare reform, electronic verification of the Social Security number. No one who protested against checking for illegal workers complained about catching deadbeat parents. For more than 10 years now, 90 percent of American employers have sent the names and SSNs of new hires to the Social Security Administration, which verifies if they match as a way to enforce child-support payments.

Our 1994 proposal was finally adopted as the pilot we urged for the first step by the Clinton administration. President Bush has expanded it, notably in raids on meatpackers that had volunteered to participate. So, what has come to be called the E-Verify system is headed down the wrong road, which we warned against: Americans do not want a big government solution to the problem of illegal employment and widespread identity theft. That won’t work.

Punishment without prevention is pointless and counterproductive — a gift to organized crime, stealing the identities of U.S. citizens born in Puerto Rico to be used by smugglers trading in human misery in the Southwestern desert.

Fortunately, there is a better idea: legislation proposed by Rep. Sam Johnson, Texas Republican in the House Ways and Means Committee. This bill has a wider and more solid foundation based on overwhelming public support for mandatory verification — nearly 90 percent in public opinion surveys. But making this work as a mandatory national system needs a broader base than the 50,000 employers who now participate in E-Verify. The Johnson bill starts with the 6 million employers who already participate in cracking down on deadbeat parents.

It does three things that are essential which other bills do not: It takes protecting the Social Security number out of the Department of Homeland Security and assigns it to the Social Security Administration where it belongs; it enlists private-sector competition; and it empowers individuals to protect their identities from both big government and big business.

The Social Security Administration is the federal government’s first line of defense against identity theft: It should be assigned the responsibility — and given the money — to do it right.

The Johnson bill has two parts. First, it mandates electronic verification through the deadbeat-parent system that most employers have used for 10 years. Since that system already identifies when faked SSNs are submitted by 90 percent of U.S. employers, it should be built out for immigration fraud as well.

But the private sector, not the government, should deal with the crisis in identity theft in the decentralized competition that empowers individuals. The Johnson bill proposes a voluntary system similar to the background checks that millions of employers already use, from nurses in hospitals, to drivers on buses, to managers at fast-food places. Science will determine which biometric (fingerprints? your voice?) is most reliable. Employers that choose to can require a biometric and eligibility under immigration law as part of a new hire’s background check — and workers can choose some other employer. But a worker can take his verification as a competitive advantage looking for a new job — the way a registered traveler can skip the lines at airports.

So the Johnson bill would empower the individual in wholly new ways: It is the individual, not the employer or the background-check company, who owns the information. There’s no card, because anything one expert can make another can fake: You will be your own identifier. You would be able to lock your SSN — and all the data associated with it — with your thumbprint.

There is a growing consensus in Congress, led by rising freshman Democrat Heath Shuler, that 90 percent of the public is right: Mandatory verification for new hires is the key to lock the back door against those we don’t want, so we can open the front door to the new Americans we do want. Like we said to Congress when we proposed it in 1994, this is too important to head in the wrong direction: Sam Johnson’s bill points the way to go.

Robert C. Hill and Michael Teitelbaum were Republican appointees to the Jordan Commission. Nelson Merced and Bruce Morrison were Democratic appointees.


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