THE BLOG
04/08/2008 09:07 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Electronic Dragnet for Undocumented Nets Citizens

Two hours after starting his new job at a food processing plant in 2006, Fernando Tinoco got fired. "I went to work, felt really good to have a new job and started going to it," says Tinoco, a 53-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Chicago. "And then they called me into the office and told me that my Social Security number was fake," he adds, "And then they fired me." Apparently, Tyson Foods Inc., Tinoco's former employer, was one of the more than 52,000 companies voluntarily participating in "E-Verify", a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program designed to identify undocumented workers by electronically verifying their employment eligibility. After the Kafkaesque experience of being hired, fired and trying to maneuver through the famously overstretched bureaucracy of the Social Security Administration to re-confirm status, Citizen Tinoco has become an outspoken critic of U.S. immigration laws' impact on citizens. "I think that citizens need to be as careful of these new immigration laws," says Tinoco, who now works at a school, adding, "they can ruin our lives too." Tinoco found his concerns echoed by Jim Harper of the conservative Cato Institute, who recently wrote that "If E-Verify goes national, get used to hearing that Orwellian term: 'non-confirmation.'"

That is why E-Verify is opposed by an unlikely alliance that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major unions, Republican legislators and others. But it is only one of a growing number of legislative and administrative immigration control initiatives that Tinoco and many critics believe will negatively impact not just non-citizens, but citizens as well. This week, for example, Congress is considering the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act, which includes provisions that mandate a national verification system like that of the more voluntary state programs like E-Verify. Also causing intense fear is last week's announcement by the Bush administration of revisions to its "No Match letter" plan, which requires the Social Security Administration (SSA) to send out 140,000 letters demanding that employers fire workers whose Social Security numbers did not match those in their records. Advocates are concerned that, like the E-Verify program and SAVE Act, the new No Match regulations will affect other U.S. citizens and authorized workers thanks to the same kind of faulty record keeping that led to Tinoco's firing.

"By viewing these initiatives through the narrow lens of 'immigration policy' sold to us by politicians many fail to see that many of these programs will have direct impacts on many citizens," says Michele Waslin, senior research analyst with the Immigration Policy Center. To support their claims, Waslin and other critics point to several reports like one by the SSA's Office of Inspector General that found that there are 17.8 million discrepancies in the SSA's records relating to lawful American workers. The report also found that 70 percent or 12.7 million of those inconsistencies belong to native-born (as opposed to naturalized) U.S. citizens.

Some advocates like Harper of the Cato Institute are fighting the proposals because they believe that there are no checks against government error or abuse against citizens in the programs ostensibly targeting those here illegally. "Once built," wrote Harper, "this government monitoring system would soon be extended to housing, financial services, and other essentials to try to get at illegal immigrants. It would also be converted to policy goals well beyond immigration control." Waslin agrees. "These programs will do nothing to deal with undocumented immigrants because people will simply go further underground," says Waslin. "But they will eventually lead to a situation that will force every single person to ask the government for permission to work. We have to ask ourselves, 'Is it really worth it?'"

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's largest business federation, answers Waslin's question with a resounding 'no', a 'no' accompanied by lawsuits, letter-writing and lobbying.

For their part, DHS representatives say that concerns about the effects on citizens are misplaced. The number of citizens mistakenly impacted by programs like No Match and E-Verify programs, says DHS spokesperson Amy Kudwa, "are a small portion of the population. Ninety-two percent of all E-verify queries are returned without incident in less than eight seconds and only 1 percent of them are contested. These are important tools in fighting illegal immigration."

But advocates point out that, despite being run on trial basis, E-Verify and other programs have already demonstrated disconcerting flaws that are rooted in the unreliability of the technology and the databases like that of SSA.

In the face of so many legislative proposals and administrative initiatives, Tinoco says his obligation to speak only grows because of his concern for his fellow immigrants -- and fellow citizens. "I still don't understand: how can this happen here? It's like a movie, a very bad movie." Asked what message he has for his fellow citizens, Tinoco answers, "This can happen to you too."