WASHINGTON — DOES America need a nationwide system of worker ID cards? Federal officials say it is an idea worth considering. Worried by the growing numbers of illegal aliens in the United States, officials are exploring the concept of a foolproof identification system for every worker in the country.
Gene McNary, commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), has not taken a position on a national ID system. Nor have other administration officials. Mr. McNary says Congress would have to make the first move. But the commissioner notes that federal laws designed to prevent the hiring of illegal aliens are being widely circumvented through the use of counterfeit birth certificates and other credentials.
``We have a lot of fraudulent documents out there that are easily obtained,'' he explains. ``A counterfeit-proof employment authorization card would almost eliminate that kind of fraud.''
Because of widespread fraud, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants now hold jobs throughout the country. And hundreds of additional illegals arrive daily in search of work.
The problem of illegal workers is especially acute in California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. As long as the illegal residents can get jobs, officials say they will keep coming.
When Congress adopted the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it included stiff penalties against companies that hired undocumented workers. But company officials have trouble determining who is in the US legally, and who isn't.
Hispanic groups complain that the 1986 law has resulted in widespread discrimination against ``foreign-looking'' workers. Companies, fearful of federal fines, turn away people, even when they produce birth certificates and other documentation, these groups charge.
Illegal immigration rising
But some federal officials say the charges of discrimination are exaggerated. In fact, even illegal aliens often have no trouble getting jobs. As a result, illegal immigration again is on the rise as foreign nationals, mostly from Mexico, enter the US in search of employment.
In February, Border Patrol officers arrested 89,925 aliens along the Mexican border - an increase of 66.5 percent over a year ago. Patrolmen estimate that they catch only one of every three aliens who cross the border unlawfully.
McNary says foolproof ID cards might solve two problems at once. It would reduce the dangers of discrimination by providing employers with a document they could trust. And it would make it much more difficult for an illegal resident to obtain a job.
In a first step in this direction, the INS began issuing fraud-resistant ID cards four months ago to noncitizens who are in the US legally, and who are authorized to work. The card includes a photo, fingerprint, signature, and expiration date. It also contains various security devices, such as wavy lines produced in the photographic process, to deter counterfeiters.
These high-tech employment cards were designed to replace a large number of paper documents previously issued by INS. Employers sometimes rejected the paper documents because they were so easily forged.
The question now is whether every American worker should be given a similar fraud-proof card. Would they object that the system smacked of authoritarian government?
On Capitol Hill, support appears to be growing for some kind of ID card system, according to several sources. But the idea has reportedly run into some opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union and others concerned about personal freedoms.
Two alternatives are mentioned which might be less objectionable. One would be a tamper-proof Social Security card.
Another would be a federally supported telephone system to check the Social Security numbers of new employees. Presently, some illegal workers use stolen Social Security numbers to obtain employment - for example, by using the number of a deceased person. If employers had an easy method to match names and birthdates with numbers, they might be able to reduce such fraud, some experts contend.
Later this month, the General Accounting Office of Congress is expected to issue a report on the 1986 immigration law. Some insiders say the GAO study may trigger a fresh debate on the law, and could prompt a new look at the idea of a national ID system.