My view: Expanding E-Verify isn't easy fix for immigration problems

By Phillip J. Windley

Published: Sunday, Oct. 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

A bill sponsored by Texas Rep. Lamar Smith and co-sponsored by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz that would make the E-Verify system mandatory has made it through the judiciary committee. E-Verify is a Department of Homeland Security system that employers can use to authenticate an individual's legal work status. To many, applying information technology to what seems like a nice, tidy identity problem seems like a quick, easy fix. But, this is not a simple identity problem.

A 2009 independent report prepared by Westat of Rockville, Md., for DHS shows that the system is 99.2 percent accurate. That sounds pretty good, if we're talking about shooting percentages or exam scores. But there are plenty of places where 99.2 percent isn't good enough. I like my bank to be much more accurate than that, for example.

Here's what the 99.2 percent accuracy rate means for E-Verify. U.S. employers hire approximately 60 million workers each year. An 0.8 percent error rate means that 480,000 legal workers will be mistakenly classified as not qualified to work. Once the system misclassifies you, the onus is on you to correct the problem. You are guilty until you prove that you're innocent, so to speak.

The study found that 22 percent of people who were misclassified spent $50 to $100 to correct the problem and 13 percent spent over $100. Half of misclassified workers missed work to correct the problem. These numbers might get better with time as more and more workers correct problems with their records, but I'm skeptical. There will always be documentation mistakes.

The accuracy isn't likely to get better without significant changes to the U.S. government identity regime. One percent is pretty good for a system based on names and Social Security numbers. Increasing the accuracy would require moving to something like biometric IDs for everyone. India's doing it, but I doubt the U.S. is ready to take that step yet. Even if we were, biometrics have their own accuracy problems. India's only seeing about 99 percent accuracy rates in biometric identification using both fingerprints and irises.

I can hear some people saying, "But that's a small price to pay to keep illegal immigrants from stealing jobs from Americans." If only. The problem is on the other side of the accuracy issue. Westat estimated that "54 percent of unauthorized workers screened through E-Verify are incorrectly confirmed by the system, usually because they use borrowed or stolen identity data." That's shocking. The system that Reps. Smith and Chaffetz want to force on every business in America doesn't even work.

These numbers are all based on a small population of employers who use the system voluntarily and employers from Arizona who are required by state law to use it. The accuracy rates are likely to get worse as the system is used more broadly since employers forced to use it will likely be less conscientious than employers who used it voluntarily. Moreover, bad actors will game the system and expand identity fraud.

E-Verify depends on employers correctly matching people and identity documents. Employers who don't care to enforce the system simply won't. A Government Accounting Office report from December 2010 stated, "Identity fraud remains a challenge in part because employers may not be able to determine if employees are presenting genuine identity and employment eligibility documents that are borrowed or stolen." E-Verify accuracy might get worse as more illegal workers learn to work the system.

Expanding E-Verify isn't an easy fix for immigration problems. In fact, it's likely to make things worse for employees and employers while expanding identity fraud. We are setting up a system that requires Americans to get the government's permission to get a job. That's a scary proposition and one I hope anyone who values their freedom would oppose.

Phil Windley is the former CIO of the State of Utah and author of the book "Digital Identity." He currently serves as CTO of Kynetx, Inc.

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