Not such a simple solution after all

Published 4:35 pm Friday, July 17, 2009

For a moment this week, it looked like a bit of sanity might be restored to federal policy on illegal immigration.
The Obama administration announced plans to discontinue a Bush-era rule that sought to force employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers didn’t match up with records in federal databases. The reason for the reversal? Those databases are riddled with too many errors.
But the Senate wasn’t about to be seen as so coddling of illegal folks. By a voice vote it passed an amendment offered by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) that would reinstate the Bush policy, which is known as the “no-match” rule. Like the no-match rule, the Vitter amendment requires employers to fire workers who couldn’t resolve such discrepancies within 90 days, even if they are based on screwed up record keeping.
In theory, a no-match rule sounds simple and reasonable enough. An employer files information through W-2 forms, the government checks such information with its records, and if there’s a mismatch – say, the name doesn’t match the number – the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends a letter to the employer. If the employee can’t account for the mismatch in 90 days, he’s gone.
Ah, grasshopper, much to learn, much to learn.
According to the Office of the Inspector General of the SSA, there are close to 18 million discrepancies in SSA’s database, and more than 70 percent of them are in the records of native-born U.S. citizens.
In other words, the idea that employers could simply plug into a federal database and check to see if a particular number was valid was flawed from the get-go. But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from continuing to push the idea.
The Obama administration succumbed to those wishes by keeping in place a similar program for federal contractors. It basically has them check SSA records as well as immigration records. Yes, that’s another program built on flawed data. If expanded, as some desire, the SSA’s own estimates suggest that expanding the policy to cover all employers would mean that 11,000 U.S. citizens a day would be misidentified as being ineligible for work.
Somehow, I don’t think members of Congress would appreciate the flood of calls those voters would place to Capitol Hill.
As it happens, in 2007 a federal court blocked the no-match program in response to lawsuits charging that it would put workers with legal status at risk of losing their jobs and encourage discrimination on the part of employers. Some employers, it was discovered, were turning away anyone who appeared “foreign” simply as a way to avoid a messy no-match problem with a potential employee.
There have been other unintended consequences to the crackdown on fake Social Security numbers. It compelled many illegal immigrants to look for ways to use a name and number that matched – in other words, to engage in identity theft.
Identity theft is no joke. And, obviously, the government cannot turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants, who are estimated to number as many as 12 million. But as Congress readies itself for the brawl that will surround immigration reform, their efforts would be best focused on attacking illegal immigration from the other direction – the pipeline – rather than working backwards to rid the nation of people already illegally living here.
Our federal agencies’ record-keeping also clearly has to be cleaned up. But it’s probable that flawed records will never be entirely purged, and so U.S. citizens will continue to be ensnared in bureaucratic difficulties whenever they change jobs.
In their haste to “do something” about illegal immigration, senators have shown how unserious they are about actually addressing the problems at the heart of our immigration policy. Sounding tough on illegal immigrants may feel good in D.C., but when citizens back home become embroiled in the mess, you can bet a backlash will come.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at