How biometrics could improve the E-Verify system

The senseless death of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts last fall made national headlines. In addition to the questions and anger the case raised, it also brought attention to E-Verify, an Internet-based system used to check the immigration status of job applicants.

The employers of the undocumented immigrant charged with killing Tibbetts initially said they had run Cristhian Bahena Rivera through the E-Verify system. But they later admitted that they had not used E-Verify to ensure Rivera was legally in the country and allowed to work.

What is E-Verify

E-Verify compares information from an employee’s Form I-9 to government data to confirm employment eligibility. Employers submit information from a potential employee’s I-9 through a multi-step online process, and the Social Security Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services match it to government records. If the information matches, that employee is deemed eligible to work in the United States. Today, the federal government requires all agencies and all private businesses working as contractors for the federal government to use E-Verify. And in recent years, 24 states have passed their own laws requiring some businesses – including state agencies, contractors, university systems and large, private businesses – to use E-Verify.

The problem is even when E-Verify is used, the program does not provide a concrete way to ensure people are who they say they are. Rivera allegedly used a different name and provided false identification when he applied for employment at the farm where he worked. In fact, his employers said when they saw him on TV after his arrest, they recognized his face, but knew him by an entirely different name. Regardless of a person’s immigration status, the real issue is whether the person applying for the job is who they say they are and that any potential red flags are raised before the person starts work.

As violence in the workplace continues to escalate, this is increasingly important. But because the E-Verify system is primarily a self-check process, there are ways for people to slip through the cracks. What’s needed is more consistency around E-Verify’s use and a stronger and more reliable way to prove identity when it is used.

Biometrics could help E-Verify

E-Verify was launched in 1996 and hasn’t kept up with the times, although some efforts are being made to modernize and strengthen the system. For example, E-Verify was augmented recently to include a photo verification step intended to prevent job applicants from using stolen or forged IDs. But it only requires that the employer compare whatever photograph the government has on file with the photograph on the identification provided by the employee. If everything checks out, the employee can begin work.

Adding biometrics to the E-Verify process could help employers quickly confirm and authenticate an applicant’s identity. In fact, politicians have been working for years to add a biometric component to E-Verify. As recently as January 2017 Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley introduced an E-Verify bill designed to expand the employment verification program nationwide and enhance the process with the addition of biometric data.

Not everyone supports the idea, however. Privacy experts have raised concerns that the addition of biometrics could lead to the creation of a biometric national ID card that could be used to track citizens, permanent residents and temporary residents and keep tabs on where they work, how much they pay in taxes and what government and health care benefits they receive. Privacy experts have also raised questions about implementation problems and inaccurate data within the E-Verify database that could prevent legal immigrants from working.

But if we want to make E-Verify a more effective system, adding a biometric component is an important factor. Protecting personal and national security is becoming a more difficult job. And while it may not prevent another senseless murder, adding biometrics to E-Verify could raise red flags when people like Cristhian Bahena Rivera lie about their identity.

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