Hard to Believe: The High Cost of a Biometric Identity Card
Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy at University of California, Berkeley School of Law Research Brief, Feb. 2012
21 Pages Posted: 16 Jan 2016 Last revised: 7 Feb 2016
Date Written: February 1, 2012
A quarter century after the last major legalization in the United States, there is much evidence and a growing consensus that our current immigration system is unworkable and in serious need of reform. One of the proposed solutions has been the creation of a Biometric Enrollment, Locally-stored Information, and Electronic Verification of Employment (BELIEVE) card that would be mandatory for anyone — citizen or non-citizen — employed in a U.S. workplace. This plan was initially offered as part of a bi-partisan proposal on comprehensive immigration reform and is likely to be part of future comprehensive reform discussions. This paper analyzes the costs and unintended consequences of such a proposal. Our analysis shows that the BELIEVE system cannot achieve its goal of preventing unauthorized employment.
We estimate that establishing a biometric employment card would cost almost $40 billion at the outset, with ongoing maintenance costs of at least $3 billion per year. Requiring all working Americans to get this identity card would fundamentally transform the information demands the United States government places on its citizens. The cards would be unreliable and inadequate to prevent fraud; would lead to privacy violations; and would place undue burdens on the poor. At the same time, the BELIEVE cards would likely be ineffective in targeting the employment of unauthorized migrants.
We recommend that rather than spending tens of billions of dollars on an expensive, intrusive and ineffective program, the government examine the root causes of unauthorized migration and employment. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), touting the new law as a solution to the employment of unauthorized immigrants. More than two decades of experience suggests that IRCA has been unable to prevent the employment of unauthorized workers and policymakers are once again searching for quick fixes. The BELIEVE system is not the answer; it will cost us dearly at a time when we can least afford it.
Keywords: biometric, privacy, anonymity, surveillance, IRCA, BELIEVE
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