Proposed Federal Worker Registry Threatens Business and Labor

Glenn Garvin, in Reason magazine, October, 1995

Contact: Rich Phillips, 310-391-2245,
or Rick Henderson, 202-457-8577, both
of Reason Foundation.

WASHINGTON, Sept. 8 -- Federal legislation aimed at creating a national ID card and requiring all U.S. workers to register their name and thumbprint with the federal government to obtain permission to work could jeopardize employment for millions of U.S. citizens and punish small- to medium-size businesses with burdensome regulations, according to "Identity Crisis: The Border War Comes Home," by Glenn Garvin, in the October 1995 issue of Reason magazine.

Attempting to curtail illegal immigration, many on Capitol Hill are turning to the national ID card as a proposed solution to register all U.S. citizens. Similar to a credit card, a strip of magnetic tape across the back would be encoded with each citizen's Social Security number and thumbprint. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) one of the proposal's leading advocates, describes it as a "machine-readable card that all job and benefits applicants would be required to present to verify their work or eligibility." Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) would add a photograph, hologram, and a biometric identifier, according to an amendment offered in a House version of the bill. Card scanners (currently priced at about $2,000 apiece) would call Washington, D.C., and verify eligibility.

According to Garvin, the campaign for a national ID card is not new. It first got serious consideration early in the Reagan administration, when Attorney General William French Smith suggested it during a Cabinet meeting. At first there were murmurs of assent. But when then presidential assistant Martin Anderson spoke up and wryly suggested an even cheaper alternative to a card -- an identification number tatooed on the inside of every American's arm -- Reagan sarcastically replied, "Maybe we should just brand all the babies."

The controversial cover of Reason magazine's October 1995 issue no doubt gets its inspiration from this story, with an eerie photo depicting a worker stamped with a bar code granting U.S. citizenship and permission to work -- sure to stir up both memories of Nazi Germany and apocalyptic fears of the end of the world.

The proponents of the card resent the implication that there's anything sinister about the idea. "It is not carried on the person, it is not an internal passport, it is not used for law enforcement," says worker-registry advocate Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.). "It is presented at the time of a new hire, and not just by people who look foreign, but by everyone. And it will say on it, I'm authorized to work in the United States of America -- that's it."

But Garvin disagrees, "At the very least, it will put every American's right to earn a living at the mercy of the federal government's whimsical computers. And at the very worst, it will be a brutally effective tool for the surveillance, manipulation, and punishment of anyone who runs afoul of Washington's imperious corps of social engineers."

A GAO study in 1988 showed that about 65 million people in the United States change jobs or enter the workforce each year. Assuming a 1 percent error rate in identifying legal workers, 650,000 people would be mistakenly thrown out of work each year.

"The really horrible thing about this is that...650,000 is an unrealistically optimistic scenario," says John Miller of the Center for Equal Opportunity. "Imagine a 5 percent scenario and you're up to 3.24 million people thrown out of work. The vast majority of them are bound to be U.S. citizens, native-born and bred." Recent experiments by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with computerized verification systems have resulted in error rates as high as 19 percent, resulting in long delays for employment applicants.

"The only ones likely to find a national ID card an obstacle to working will be honest people who become accidentally snarled in red tape," says Garvin. "The card will depend on INS records to establish worker eligibility -- records that are incorrect 17 percent of the time. While the unlucky victim of the computer is waiting, who will pay for rent and groceries?"

"And because the card will double as a work permit, how long before Janet Reno proposes two years without the right to work for anyone convicted of wife beating? or 'hate speech?' or owning an 'assault weapon?' The government, with a single key stroke, could destroy anyone's ability to earn a living."

Garvin is co-author of "Diary of a Survivor: Nineteen Years in a Cuban Women's Prison" and an editor at the Miami Herald. Copies of "Identity Crisis: The Border War Comes Home" by Glenn Garvin in the October 1995 issue of Reason magazine may be obtained by calling the Reason Foundation at 310-391-2245.

Reason is a leading social and political commentary magazine that goes beyond the news to deliver insightful and distinctive information and analysis. For over a quarter of a century, Reason magazine has gone beyond Beltway politics, challenged conventional wisdom, and offered a refreshing alternative to Washington-based opinion. Reason is published by the Reason Foundation, a national, think tank based in Los Angeles.