Rand Paul's beef with immigration reform bill: the E-Verify system

A photo-based E-Verify system for checking workers' legal status – a key part of the Senate immigration reform bill – does not mesh well with the libertarian leanings of Sen. Rand Paul (R). His worry: a 'national ID.'

Jason Reed/Reuters
Senator Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky speaks during a Senate homeland security and governmental affairs investigations subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday. Rand Paul has said on several occasions that he wants a Senate immigration reform bill to pass, but he has erected two tall hurdles the bill must clear to gain his approval.

The Senate immigration reform bill will have a prominent challenger when it comes up for a final vote in June: Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky.

Senator Paul has said on several occasions that he wants a reform bill to pass. Even so, he has erected two tall hurdles the immigration bill must clear to gain his approval. One, he wants Congress to certify that the southern border is secure for several consecutive years before the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the US can begin becoming permanent residents.

And on Friday, he laid out a second requirement: nix the worker verification system known as E-Verify, the very one that conservatives have for a decade said is a linchpin of any immigration reform.

“Many see measures contained in this bill, such as a strong E-Verify and a ‘photo tool,’ as a means to control unlawful immigrants’ access to unlawful employment. I worry that they go too far,” Paul wrote in the Washington Times. “I will fight to remove the photo tool from this legislation because I think it will become a national ID.”

Here's what Paul is referring to: The Senate immigration bill contains language that would, over the next five years, expand the nation’s current photo database system to include all Americans, not just foreigners and US passport holders. Employers would use photos in the database to help validate an employee’s identity. Currently, the system does not use photographs for identification and is rife with identity theft, as illegal workers use stolen Social Security numbers or forged documents to gain employment.

Many dislike Paul's idea. Removing the photo verification process would undercut immigration laws at the very place where, according to many experts, they are best enforced: at the workplace. Turn off the ability to get jobs, their argument goes, and people will have much less incentive to enter the US illegally.

“Without the photo tool, all you’re checking is the name and Social Security number of somebody. It does nothing to stop identity theft,” says Charles Kuck, a Georgia immigration lawyer and the former head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It takes the complete ability to actually enforce the law out of the process."

To Paul, beefed-up border security, additional safeguards to ensure that illegal immigrants can't receive government benefits, and expanded channels for legal, employment-based migration – provisions in the reform bill – are sufficient to address the problem of illegal immigration. Workplace enforcement, he argues, does not need to be added to the mix.

But Paul, a potential 2016 GOP presidential contender and the heir to the libertarian following built by his father, former US Rep. Ron Paul, is also worried about government intrusion into Americans' lives and suspicious that the photo identification part of the immigration bill will create an avenue for new intrusions.

“I worry that the Senate is working to consider a series of little-noticed provisions in comprehensive immigration reform that may provide a pathway to a national ID card for all individuals present in the United States – citizens and noncitizens,” Paul wrote. “These draconian ideas would simply give government too much power.”

Paul’s office did not respond to requests for further comment. 

Kuck says Paul is right to be concerned on one level, noting that the plan “smacks immediately of a national ID card.” 

Still, there’s a big “but”: Many lawmakers and experts believe that a photo-based E-Verify system, along with stepped-up border security, is the most practical deterrent to illegal immigration.

“If you want to enforce immigration laws and you believe jobs are the magnet ... it’s really the only effective tool to make sure people aren’t using fake IDs to work illegally in the United States,” Kuck says.

Paul’s solutions would not do much to deter those who simply overstay their visas – perhaps 40 percent of the current undocumented population, Kuck adds.

But Paul faces an ideological conundrum, Kuck says, in that he says he wants to fix the US immigration system but a central tenet of the fix is decidedly unlibertarian.  

With Republicans among the Senate’s “Gang of Eight” negotiators committed to E-Verify and the photo tool, it’s unlikely that Paul will prevail. In that case, Kuck says, Paul will have to decide whether to compromise or walk.

At the moment, he’s stuck in the middle.

“I don’t see how you can say the bill isn’t strong enough on enforcement if you’re taking away the most effective enforcement tool that exists,” Kuck says. “It’s really a case of Rand Paul wanting it both ways.”

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