Under current law, employers are required to ask new hires to prove they are legally in this country and authorized for employment. This is done by a regulated process and both parties must sign a form called an I-9. The employee shows the employer two forms of identification establishing he or she is in the U.S. legally (such as social security card or passport, or if the person is a non-citizen, an alien registration card) and that the person is authorized for employment. All U.S. citizens are authorized for employment but many legally admitted immigrants are not. A person here on a tourist visa cannot work. So their immigrant registration cards will be stamped "employment not authorized."
Social security cards establish employment authorization but not identity. To establish you are who you say you are one must produce a photo ID such as a state-issued drivers' ID. But these, to make matters more confusing, establish identity but not employment authorization. (Passports establish both, but few people carry them.)
The process of producing two proper forms of ID to an employer is complicated by long lists of acceptable and unacceptable documents and federal regulations detailing that employers cannot presume anything from an applicant's language, accent or appearance. I've sued many companies for violating the law by making the entire process a farce. An employer bent of hiring illegal immigrants using fake documents, which are easily obtainable on the streets of many cities, can say they tried to discern if documents were genuine but were inhibited from follow-up questions by the non-discrimination provision. This is largely a bogus but nevertheless plausible excuse for hiring illegal workers.
What to do with a person who checks the U.S. Citizen box on the I-9 form but can't speak much English? A prudent employer would ask to see more documents or ask an obvious follow-up question: where were you born? But there is so much uncertainty in the who process, and so little workplace enforcement, that many employers will simply not ask and hire the person.
It's time for a single nationally issued worker ID card with secure biometric features. This would make the entire process almost seamless. The employer will ask for one and only one document, and it can be verified as genuine online. Of course, the government will have to issue everyone a card with a photo. But this is no more difficult than getting a passport. There can be a phase-in period of some months to get it done. Minority groups may complain that it burdens the immobile, but there is a clear and necessary gain to be achieved: a secure workplace free of illegal immigrants. "Civil libertarians" will also complain that a national ID card allows the government to track citizens without due process. But doesn't a passport do the same thing?
The Wall Street Journal reports that this is being considered by members of Congress negotiating an immigration bill. It's the first sensible thing I've read about that "Group of Eight."