A bipartisan effort brewing in Congress calls for new, high-tech Social Security cards designed to purge undocumented workers from payrolls, but critics say it's nothing but a veiled and ominous effort to create a national identification system.
Sponsors of the bill, introduced last week, say the idea is not to punish employers, but to help them. No longer will they be left guessing whether they might have unknowingly hired illegal workers. But if they do, the bill calls for stiffer penalties.
The Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act is meant to build on a current experimental call-in program that employers can voluntarily use to check a job applicant's Social Security number.
Under the proposal, all job applicants — U.S. citizens and legal immigrants — would have to present a high-tech card that would either be run through a government-provided scanner or be called in for verification, said U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief, said the law's success would reduce illegal immigration, taking pressure off border agents.
How it would work
Under the proposed Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act, job applicants would have to present a high-tech Social Security card that would provide instant information on immigration status. Here's how it would work:
The card could be run through a government-provided scanner or called in for verification.
All job applicants — U.S. citizens and legal immigrants — would be required to present one.
Employers who knowingly hire illegal workers could be fined as much as $50,000 per case.
Costs include $100 million to set up the program, plus $40 million over four years for enforcement technology.
The bill also calls for 10,000 additional jobs to manage the program.
And it's not just another unrealistic piece of legislation meant to stir debate, Reyes said. It has attracted co-sponsors from both parties, including U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio.
"We're serious about this. It's a meaningful proposal that addresses issues with national security, fraudulent documentation and illegal immigration all at the same time," Reyes said.
The bill would give the Homeland Security Department and Social Security Administration two years to work out the new card system, which would yield a new government database detailing job applicants' immigration status.
The current paper Social Security cards would be changed to resemble drivers' licenses, including the holder's photograph.
Employers would be required to sign a government form acknowledging they'd abide by the new standards. They wouldn't be punished if they fired workers who were unintentionally hired illegally.
But those caught knowingly employing undocumented workers would face fines as high as $50,000 per case, plus possible additional fines and as many as five years in prison.
The bill, which asks for $100 million for setup costs, also calls for $40 million over four years for new border enforcement technology, as well as 10,000 additional jobs at Homeland Security to manage the program.
The idea for the law grew out of a conversation a California congressman had with T.J. Bonner, president of the 10,000-member National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union. The vast majority of illegal crossers would be dissuaded from making the trip north if they knew nobody would hire them, Bonner said.
"When you analyze the problem, 98 percent of people come looking for work," he said. "If that traffic dries up, that would allow us to do our job."
Groups that have long called for curtailing immigration have found an answer in the bill.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said most employers are law-abiding and would welcome such a law.
It would essentially give Social Security cards the same protection as ATM or credit cards, and that's what employers have needed to know — that they've hired legal workers, Mehlman said.
He was optimistic that the public has tuned in to immigration issues and will not let the status quo stand. People will see this bill as the best bet for true immigration reform, he said.
Not if they're shown that the effort is a backdoor way to get a national I.D. card, said Marv Johnson, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Reyes said such criticism was anticipated, and that's why the bill includes language clarifying that the new Social Security cards would not be used for identification purposes.
But people won't fall for the semantic trap, Johnson said. Employers would ask applicants to identify themselves by using the cards, so there'd be no question they would serve as de facto personal identification, he said.
Questions also remain about possible privacy violations with the new database. Bill sponsors may say it would be used only for employment purposes, but there's no telling if the government would eventually push to expand its use, Johnson said.
Business lobbyists said they're still looking at the proposal's language and have not drawn a final conclusion, but their first impression was not favorable.
Theresa Brown, immigration policy director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said tougher enforcement is acceptable, but it would work better if it were offered as part of a larger immigration reform package.
Even then, she said, it would be hard to convince employers it's their job to double as immigration law enforcers.
Just ask Del Wood.
"What a nightmare!" is how the 17-year owner of Italia Ristorante on the River Walk and board member of the San Antonio Restaurant Association reacted when told about the proposed law.
Though he understood the need to fix the country's paradoxical immigration system, Wood said small-business owners already have enough pressures from a sour economy to also worry about being heavily fined or even jailed for failing to do the government's work.
"Why even try to stay in business?" he said. "This is scary as hell."