If you hang everyone, the old saying goes, you will catch some guilty people. That adage points to the fatal flaw of an employment-verification program tucked into several recent immigration-reform proposals in Congress.
The E-Verify program—which several states are experimenting with, but which would become mandatory nationwide under proposed new law—targets every employee that a business hires, in the hope of weeding out a few undocumented immigrants from the workforce. In the process, E-Verify erects dangerous hurdles to employment for legal workers and degrades the privacy of working Americans.
Employers enrolled in E-Verify must submit electronic information about all employees to a government database. If an employee's information conflicts with the database, the individual cannot work until he corrects the error. Every potential employee is thus presumed to be ineligible to work until proven otherwise. So much for the presumption of innocence. Resolving E-Verify errors often requires a job seeker to visit the local Social Security Administration office. If you like waiting at the DMV, you will love E-Verify.
Unsurprisingly, E-Verify's database contains inaccurate data. In fact, a 2009 report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security shows that a national mandate would force 1.2 million of today's legal workers to sort out such problems. Of these, almost 770,000 genuinely legal workers would lose their jobs due to lost documentation, failure to file an appeal in time, or employers who never inform them of the initial error. E-Verify has improved, but it has never been tested on states with large legal immigrant populations, and Homeland Security refuses to let states make its use dependent on the timely resolution of errors.
Workers aren't the only victims of E-Verify. The program also imposes sizable burdens on job-creating companies, as any small business owner who has read E-Verify's 88-page compliance manual can attest. Implementing a nationwide E-Verify mandate would cost small businesses $2.6 billion each year, according to a June 2011 report at the Bloomberg Government website. The cost of screening a single new hire: $147. Perhaps this explains why only slightly more than half of Arizona businesses have enrolled in E-Verify—despite a 2008 state law that requires all of them to do so.
Taxpayers also would suffer under an E-Verify mandate. The Government Accounting Office estimates that implementing the system would cost Homeland Security $765 million over four years and would require the Social Security Administration to hire 700 new employees and spend $281 million over five years. Worse, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a national E-Verify mandate would deprive the government of $17.3 billion in tax revenues over 10 years. This is largely because E-Verify would push many employees who currently pay taxes into the black market.
The benefits of E-Verify don't come close to justifying these massive costs. Homeland Security's 2009 report found that E-Verify failed to catch 54% of unauthorized workers. These failures were caused largely by falsified identity documents, which E-Verify is ill-equipped to detect. It is hard to imagine how a system so ripe for circumvention will meaningfully curb unauthorized immigration.
In the longer run, an E-Verify mandate would further erode individual privacy. If the system goes national, it may well mutate into a catch-all method of ascertaining Americans' identities. A similar fate befell the Social Security number, which was created solely to distribute benefits.
Imagine all the ways government could repurpose an electronic system supposedly capable of verifying our identities. After employment eligibility, airports, voting booths and office buildings might well be next. How long before we will all need E-Verify's blessing before attending college, signing up for Internet access or buying a legal firearm?
All Americans have a right to earn an honest living through hard work. Congress shouldn't create a huge new bureaucracy to stand in the way. Only one in 20 U.S. workers is undocumented, Pew Hispanic Research found in 2010, yet E-Verify would intrude into the lives of all Americans and their employers. Lawmakers should focus instead on the only proven way to address illegal immigration: an efficient and effective legal pathway for immigrants to enter and work in the U.S.
Ms. Murphy is director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office. Mr. Smith is the founder and chairman of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.