FOR three years after 1986, when Congress enacted reform legislation to deter illegal immigration into the United States, the number of undocumented aliens caught along the nation's southern border each year dropped steadily. The decline in arrests apparently reflected a significant drop in illegal border crossings. The new law, which includes sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens, appeared to be working. This year, however, border arrests have risen sharply - probably mirroring an increase in illegal border crossings. One reason: Jobs are to be had, because employer sanctions aren't effective. And a major reason is the thriving market in fraudulent identification documents.
Under the law, employers are not required to verify the accuracy of documents that appear valid on their face. Moreover, job applicants may present at least 17 different kinds of documents to establish their legitimate status - ranging from Social Security cards, immigration green cards, and driver's licenses to such easily faked documents as birth certificates and rent receipts.
Traffic in forged documents is booming. A single cache of 25,000 phony documents was seized in Houston this year.
The availability of fake documents has renewed calls for tighter procedures to verify that job seekers are in the US legally. At one extreme are proposals for a national ID card for all American citizens and legal residents. (Germany has such a card, for instance.) But US civil liberties groups persuasively contend that a national ID card is inimical to the American tradition and would be susceptible to Big Brother misuse by authorities.
Less Draconian measures are feasible, however. First, the types of documents that employers can rely on in hiring workers should be reduced to just a Social Security card, a driver's licence, a green card for permanent resident aliens, a work-authorization document issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to other authorized aliens, and maybe one or two others.
Second, these acceptable documents should be rendered more secure from counterfeiting. The INS has already devised a machine-readable green card with biometric identifiers and electronically storable imagery of the photo, signature, and fingerprint. Social Security cards and state driver's licenses could be made similarly forgery-proof.
Third, employers should be able quickly to verify work-authorization documents with a telephone call, as credit-card purchases are currently verified.
Obviously, such procedures require safeguards. But they need not be any more intrusive of individual privacy than are current uses of government data bases, as for law enforcement or firearms purchases. And as document-verification procedures became simple and reliable, they would eliminate much of the discrimination against Hispanic and Asian workers by employers who are befuddled by the current system and fearful of sanctions.