Crossing The ID Border

Commentary:The Monitor's View
from the December 18, 2006 edition
The Christian Science Monitor

Crossing the ID border
The Monitor's View

Americans learned last week they can no longer look the other way when someone else hires an illegal worker. A federal raid on six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants in the US nabbed more than 1,250 “undocumented” migrants – and dozens were charged with using the IDs of real people, perhaps even of children.

The usual practice for many of the estimated 12 million illegal migrants living in the US has been to buy fake IDs with made-up numbers and names. But organized rings in at least 10 cities now sell authentic-looking Social Security cards and some 26 other types of IDs with real names.

These IDs make it even more difficult for employers to reject illegal workers – if employers even bother to check. Such forgery has reached an “epidemic,” say federal officials, with illegal migrants and their handlers now violating both the privacy rights and economic rights of innocent Americans.

In one case, a man named Jason Smith found he owed $12,000 in back taxes because an illegal immigrant used his Social Security number to work at a chicken plant for three years.

To avoid detection, fake-ID rings often use a child's identity. Usually, only when the children reach 18 would they find out they have a record of bad credit or other financial complication. One Mexico-based ring's reach is so “breathtaking,” a federal judge stated in one case, that it hits “at the heart of the sovereignty of the United States.”

Most identity theft is done to steal money, not work in someone's name. But with about 1 in 30 Americans now having their financial identities stolen each year, and with illegal migrants making up nearly 1 in 20 workers, a dangerous link has been made between two massive violations of law. Government is cracking down on ID theft, but both states and Congress have only begun to come to grips with illegal migration – despite the threat of terrorists using fake IDs to hide in the US.

A federal system that allows employers to check Social Security IDs is flawed because it cannot detect cases where migrants use legitimate names and numbers. (Swift & Co. uses the system, but only a fraction of companies do.)

Even if this system is improved, ID thieves may find new ways around it. And expanding a guest-worker program for Mexicans may only be compromised by other ways of forging documents; in addition, that program may never be large enough to curb the flow of illegal migration.

Another offered solution – “earned amnesty” – would be difficult if illegals simply buy fake records to claim they've been in the US for years. And amnesty is hardly a reward to give those who knowingly commit the felony of identity theft.

Congress recently boosted border enforcement and raised fines on employers who hire illegals. Both measures are good first steps and need to be pursued effectively for years. Companies need to raise wages high enough to attract legal workers, while law enforcement needs to show a consistent record of cracking down on employers who knowingly hire illegals.

No one's true identity can ever be stolen. But Americans need to know that both their financial and border security are not at risk.