A national identity card? Passport to halt illegal immigration may hobble civil rights

THERE now appears to be a consensus in the United States that major steps must be taken to curtail illegal immigration. But there is also sharp division on how to apply sanctions on illegals and those who sponsor or employ them without invading the privacy of citizens and perhaps throwing civil liberties to the wind.

Concerns of liberals about the latter have up to now blocked immigration-reform legislation that would have required identification cards for all US workers -- citizens and aliens alike.

Proponents of national identity cards have included such prominent citizens as Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of the University of Notre Dame, who had served as head of the US Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

Supporters of such a requirement point out that such cards, together with penalties for hiring illegal aliens, could result in the opening up of jobs for American citizens and legal aliens. They aver that illegal workers depress wages and working conditions.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups, argue that the cards would be inconsistent with the US tradition of civil liberties; they might constitute a first step toward an internal passport; and they could facilitate social control and exchange of information by government agencies.

Further, Hispanic-American groups oppose such a system as discriminatory. They charge that workers with a foreign accent or foreign appearance would be asked to show their documents most often.

These arguments carry over into the current debate on the Immigration Control and Legalization Amendments Act, now before Congress.

Although proposed legislation contains language disclaiming the intent of Congress to establish a national identity card, many believe the proposed alternatives add up to the same thing.

One recommendation is to create a new counterfeit-resistent social security card for identification purposes. Such a document would contain the bearer's photograph, signature, perhaps other identifying data, and a code indicating government or alien status. This information could be verified by government computers.

Another approach would dispense with the social security identifier and rely instead on a government data bank of personal information filed under individual social security numbers. Employers would be able to telephone in -- the way they do for American Express or VISA credit card verfications -- essential data on each person in the work force. This, in turn, would be screened by the government against records in the data bank.

Both approaches offend civil libertarians who fear they could, in effect, lead to ``domestic passports'' and open the door to abuse by law enforcement and other public agencies.

Wade J. Henderson, ACLU's associate director, recently testified before the House Ways and Means Committee: ``What the sponsors do not realize is that the government's police powers to stop and search are already sufficient to transform the identity document -- particularly one which relies on the social security account number -- into a major threat to privacy and freedom of movement.''

The civil liberties official further holds that the adoption of a national identity document or verification system could serve as a ``blanket invitation'' to police -- armed with recent US Supreme Court decisions broadening search and seizure authority -- to exercise these powers in the name of immigration control.

ACLU's position is that the social security card is meant only to verify wages and income and should not be used by government for sleuthing out illegal aliens. Present identifying documents, including passports and drivers' licenses, suffice to establish identification and don't invade constitutional guarantees of individual liberty and personal privacy, Mr. Henderson says.

Others strongly disagree. Among them is Roger Conner, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). Mr. Conner is an advocate of a tamper-resistent social security card that would be difficult and expensive to counterfeit. He says that private credit-card companies protect their cards by imprinting holograms on them. ``It's now too expensive to produce a fake VISA card. Why shouldn't the government do the same [with social security cards]?'' he asks.

But the FAIR official also stresses that employer sanctions must accompany an identification system to effectively deter illegal aliens. (Most illegals enter the US to get a job. The theory is that they would remain at home if they were denied employment.)

A recent international study by the General Accounting Office indicates that the imposition of stringent penalties for hiring illegals has effectively discouraged such practices, particularly in France and West Germany.

And the issue of identity cards is not unique to the US -- nor is the debate over whether such documents affront individual rights.

Civil liberties groups in Australia, for instance, have been fighting a government plan to require such identification of every citizen. Backers claim the ID will help stamp out social security fraud and tax evasion and thereby raise government revenue. But some opponents have likened it to the tattoo used to label Jews in Nazi concentration camps.

A recent survey by the Economist indicates that current fear of terrorism is prompting many Western European nations to either introduce or modernize compulsory identity cards. The governments of West Germany, France, Belgium, and Spain are bringing in ``unfakeable'' cards that can be read by a computer.

However, in France, laws restrict the circumstances in which police may ask for such identification.

A Thursday column

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