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Worker ID cards expected to get a new look

A supporter of the cards, Sen. Charles Schumer, is expected to introduce a worker ID card bill this fall. Immigrants rights advocates see positives to the system, but they have some worries.

June 16, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

As the immigration reform debate begins to heat up again, some observers expect that one of the biggest and most controversial new elements will be a proposed national worker identification card for all Americans.

A "forgery-proof" worker ID card, secured with biometric data such as fingerprints, is an idea favored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y), the new chairman of the immigration subcommittee. Schumer, who will lead the effort to craft the Senate's comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation, called the card the best way to ensure that all workers were authorized.

"The ID will make it easy for employers to avoid undocumented workers, which will allow for tough sanctions against employers who break the law, which will lead to no jobs being available for illegal immigrants, which will stop illegal immigration," Schumer wrote in his 2007 book, "Positively American."

"Once Americans are convinced that we will permanently staunch the flow of illegal immigration, they will be more willing to accept constructing a path toward earned citizenship for those who are already here."

A Schumer aide said last week that the senator would probably present the worker ID card idea at a hearing this summer on employee verification systems. The senator previously held a hearing on border enforcement and plans to hold three more this summer -- on future immigrant flows, legalization of illegal immigrants and worker verification -- before introducing a comprehensive bill in the fall, the aide said.

The idea of a worker ID card is embraced by some business and community organizations. But it has touched off fears among some labor activists and the American Civil Liberties Union about civil rights violations and a "big brother" intrusion into private lives.

In his book, Schumer proposed requiring every American worker, citizen and noncitizen, to apply for an identity card.

Some activists worry that any ID card proposal could divide the immigrant rights community between those opposed to its perceived dangers and those willing to accept it as part of a compromise that would legalize many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

"The bottom line is that this would be really expensive, really invasive and people will hate it," said Chris Calabrese, counsel for the ACLU's technology and liberty project.

Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, said she would not want employers to control any worker verification system because they could selectively use it to punish people advocating labor rights or union organization.

Immigration lawyer Peter Schey said it would be nearly impossible to monitor the nation's 26 million employers for compliance with a worker verification system. As a result, he and others argue, the best way to discourage illegal immigration is by strict enforcement of wage and hour laws, and by serious penalties on employers who violate them.

Business leaders say they want to be sure they will not be saddled with high costs or liability for any new verification system.

Some business groups have opposed the idea of making mandatory the system known as E-Verify. The online system allows employers to check the citizenship status and work eligibility of new employees.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman Angelo Amador said employers never knew whether the passports, driver's licenses or Social Security cards being presented were genuine. But he said anyone presenting a worker ID card would be assumed legal, subject to confirmation by checking on a national database.

"It takes away the burden on employers of being ID experts," Amador said.

Most activists say they are waiting for details before weighing in. But some say they may ultimately have to compromise.

"At the end of the day, if we're going to achieve legalization of a major share of the undocumented, we realize there will have to be some give and take over worker verification," said Mike Garcia, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 1877 in Los Angeles. "We're not against it necessarily if all of the other pieces of immigration reform fall into place."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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