By Linda Berns

At a recent White House ceremony to naturalize 24 members of the U.S. military, President Barack Obama called on Congress to overhaul the nation's broken immigration system.

In his remarks, the president praised U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., for working to forge bipartisan support for comprehensive immigration reform.

Indeed, Sen. Schumer's leadership on this controversial issue is admirable — our nation's dysfunctional immigration laws have created a human rights crisis in New York and across the country. Arizona's draconian and discriminatory new law that imperils the civil liberties of the state's entire Latino population clearly demonstrates the urgent need for Congress to pass comprehensive reform.

Unfortunately, a key element of Schumer's plan, as outlined in a recent op-ed column he co-authored in the Washington Post, poses a serious threat to the privacy and liberty of immigrants and U.S. citizens alike.

Schumer proposes establishing a national worker identification system in which anyone looking to work in the United States must obtain a government ID card bearing their photograph and encrypted with biometric data, such as their fingerprints, an iris scan or a scan of the veins on the backs of their hands. Prospective employers would scan the cards to verify a job applicant's citizenship or immigration status.

Essentially, this proposal would force American citizens to obtain the government's permission to start a job. It would set the framework for a national identification system that will enable the government to track our daily activities and pry into our private lives.

Schumer's assertion that the worker ID cards will be used only for employment purposes ignores history. For decades, Social Security cards were stamped with an admonishment that they were not for identity purposes. Over the years, the cards have become essential identity documents. The same undoubtedly would happen with a biometric worker ID card. They would soon be required for any number of activities, including voting, obtaining government benefits, buying a gun, etc.

Schumer maintains that his plan would not require a database of Americans' personal information, overlooking the fact that databases support every existing government identification system. They're essential for preventing fraud and abuse. Without record keeping, it would be impossible to know whether the same identity documents are being used again and again to issue ID cards to different people, defeating the worker ID card system's entire purpose.

A national worker ID system must include a vast central repository of our personal information, including our biometric data. This database would be a treasure trove for hackers and identity thieves who could use this information to ruin people's lives. Moreover, the ID cards would contain a machine-readable area, like a magnetic strip, allowing government bureaucrats and private corporations — or anyone with a scanner — to develop electronic profiles of our daily activities.

Establishing a national worker ID system would be excessively expensive. Businesses would be forced to buy scanners to verify job candidates' identities. Schumer estimates that those would cost about $800 apiece.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently spent about $1.9 billion issuing biometric ID cards to about 1 million workers in the transportation sector through the federal government's Transportation Worker Identification Credential program. By these numbers, it would cost $285 billion to create biometric IDs for the nation's workforce of 150 million people.

Don't expect the government to distribute worker ID cards for free. It would be a fee-based system, like driver's licenses, meaning we'd have to pay the government for permission to work.

It's a huge expense for an unworkable system. Inevitably, numerous technical glitches would delay hiring and cost people jobs. Many employers would simply continue exploiting undocumented labor in order to avoid the hassles, leading to the same problems that demand comprehensive reform in the first place.

There are simpler and more effective ways to stop businesses from exploiting undocumented workers. Enforcing wage, hour and other existing labor laws and enhancing the U.S.'s anti-document fraud technology is less expensive and much less intrusive than forcing hundreds of millions of people to obtain biometric IDs.

Sen. Schumer, chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, has been a positive force for immigration reform.

He recognizes that we cannot fix our broken immigration system by simply rounding up and deporting millions of people.

However, he should abandon his misguided national worker ID proposal and focus his considerable influence and political skills on securing reform that respects everyone's rights and dignity.

Linda Berns is director of the Lower Hudson Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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