Alien Notions Washington, D.C. SENATE panel was concerned with how America can keep border-hopping ethnics at bay. None of our neighbors were mentioned by name as this was a polite venue: the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairs. There was, however, a pall of racialist fear, a paranoid urgency about stopping the desperate incursions of the doomed who refuse to accept their sorry fates and die where they were born. About halfway through the August 3 hearing, the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, former Texas Democratic Congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, told the senators the nature of the Faustian bargain America would have to strike to ensure no postmodern Visigoths would cash a foodstamp they didn’t deserve or take a job without the state’s authorization. The commission had decidedand would recommend to the Presidentthat a computer database would have to be built containing the names of all legally resident Ameriansnative and foreign-bornalong with their Social Security numbers. Anyone looking for work would have to have his identifier checked against the database to assure he or she were eligible to work in the United States. No valid number, no employment authorization. Jordan and fellow commissioners recommended that a three-year test program be begun as soon as possible in the five states most affected by illegal immigrants Texas, California, New York, Florida and Illinoisin which the Immigration and Naturalization Service believes about 80 percent of the illegal aliens reside. Residents of these states would be among the first Americans subject to an identity authentication technology operated by the federal government. Similar ideas have been discussed in Washington, off and on, since the 1960s but usually they have been rejected by executives and Congresses with enough common sense to understand that, despite the efficiencies such a system promises, it is antithetical to the ideals of a democratic nation. What’s different this time around? The Clinton Administration floated trial balloons about a national identification card system, which reportedly was discussed in earlier drafts of the commission’s reform recommendationsuntil the news broke in Peter Cassidy of Boston is a freelance writer on white-collar crime and national affairs. July, leading to the traditional outcry. During a break in the testimony, when Commission Executive Director Susan Martin was asked if the commission’s recommendations were in any way connected with the Clinton Administration’s ruminations about a national ID card, she was emphatic: “The commission categorically rejects the idea that U.S. citizens have some kind of card to carry around with them.” Cecilia Munoz, senior policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, a national Latino advocacy organization, said in a telephone interview after the hearing that she saw drafts in November of the commission’s earlier recommendations that explicitly called for a national identification card system. “It is very clear that the proposal changed in the last three weeks; the proposal at the hearing was all smoke and mirrors. It’s still the same because this system will eventually require a national ID card,” Munoz said. She believes the commission, chastened by the reaction to the White House trial balloon, is moving toward the card ID system in a stepwise fashion: First the database, then the card at some point later. But the proposal offered to the senators would require a token of some sort to authenticate the identity of job applicantsif not a “national ID card” by name. “First, employers will need a way to determine that the individual about to be hired is actually the person with that Social Security number… We have heard proposals for a more secure Social Security card, counterfeit-resistant drivers’ license, and a telephone verification system,” Jordan said. Any student of computer security knows the basic rules of verifying the identity of a computer user through the double challenge. The user must be able to identify some information only that particular user would knowa passwordand possess something only he would havea token, such as a card with a magnetic strip, a barcode or an LCD display with a randomly generated number. However, the best authentication tokens in the future will be something that the user can never lose, such as his or her voice, the shape of a hand or the pattern of blood vessels on the retina, all biometrics that are machine-readable today. So Big Brother might not need a national ID card. When Jordan finished reading about the new employment verification database, the heat of outrage against invading aliens was suddenly cooled by concerns about the costs of secure American borders. The hearing became a rambling discussion of the technologies of police state. Jordan, whose credentials as an eloquent legislator and scholar earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom the following week, promised the senators on the subcommittee, “I have spent my career upholding the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I would not be a party to something I felt to be an unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of people.” This doubtless is true. No one in that meeting room could doubt the competence, sincerity and concern for the dignity of the immigrant that was displayed by the senators and every commission witness. But Jordan and her fellow commissioners would, when their mission is complete, drift into obscurity and leave behind a database that could be marshalled by almost any government agent for almost any intent, relative to the climate that is established by the executive branch. This fact was lost on the senators, who were quickly satisfied, despite abundant historical evidence, that the database would not be abused. Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson, a perennial supporter of an ID system, chuckled at the objections he has heard to such a scheme over the years. “I’ve heard it all,” he said with a dismissing wave. The senators appeared enthused about the commission’s recommendations and talked about enacting the proposals as soon as possible. California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’ s response was typical: “I believe we should fund it and do it right. We should get the three-year program underway immediately. Do it fast.” Whatever reluctance there was to authorizing such a database was eclipsed by the perception that immigration is so hot a political topic that it requires immediate action, no matter how corrosive to civil liberties. Fear of drugs has led to draconian penalties for the possession of outlawed drugs; expanded asset-forfeiture laws that allow police to seize property of suspected drug traffickers pretty much at will, forcing the victims to fight to retrieve it in court; invasive drug-testing of employees; and a breach in the wall separating civilian police and the military. In the same way, fear of the illegal aliens threatens to lead the United States into another breathless coupling with fascism as it institutionalizes the authority to validate a human being’s identity. It is an unwholesome notion, almost totally at odds with the ideals of a self-invented nation populated by self-invented people. -PETER CASSIDY 4 AUGUST 19, 1994
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