WASHINGTON - Congress is moving to replace the paper Social Security cards issued to 280 million Americans with plastic, harder-to-counterfeit versions to try to curtail identity theft and the use of Social Security cards and numbers by some undocumented immigrants to obtain jobs.
Privacy and immigration advocates as well as business groups have concerns about the proposed cards. Critics fear they could become de facto national ID cards and eventually play the role that identity papers have played in repressive societies. There is also concern that the proposal could mean trouble for immigrant workers and criminal fines for employers.
If the Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act of 2005 became law, every person seeking a job in the United States, citizen or undocumented immigrant alike, would have to present the card to a prospective employer. Job applicants would have to provide more than a Social Security number - they would need to physically present the card.
The bill has the support of at least two powerful House committee chairmen, and Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican and House majority whip, is one of 36 co-sponsors.
But Ron Bonjean, a spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, said yesterday that he had no immediate comment on the bill "pending review of the legislation."
Proponents also hope the card would end the difficulties endured by victims of identity theft.
A San Diego woman, a U.S. citizen who asked that her name not be revealed, said yesterday that her name and Social Security number were misappropriated by an undocumented immigrant who secured jobs and credit using her Social Security number.
The immigrant stole from at least one employer, defaulted on credit and had an arrest warrant for an assault, all of which caused more than a decade of problems for the San Diego woman, because that information was associated with her Social Security number.
"At least there are people thinking about making the Social Security number and those cards more secure. I'd like to see that," she said. "Because a piece of flimsy paper that anybody could [steal] out of the mail, that doesn't have any identification except for that number and a name, is really loosey-goosey."
The front of the card as envisioned by its proponents would have the holder's photo and Social Security number.
A machine-readable magnetic stripe on the card's back, like those found on credit cards, would contain a digitized photo as well and the person's employment eligibility. The card could be swiped through a reader by an employer with its information compared to an employment eligibility database to be maintained by the Homeland Security Department.
The legislation also tries to address the economic demand for undocumented immigrants. Under the bill, for the first time employers who hire such individuals could face federal criminal charges punishable by up to five years in prison for employing even one illegal immigrant while imposing a fine of up to $50,000 for every illegal immigrant hired.
The bill would also require the hiring of 10,000 more federal immigration enforcement agents to crack down on the hiring of illegal immigrants.
"If anyone who's here illegally is hoping to get a job, they're looking for a new job, they won't be able to get that job if they don't have one of these," said Rep. David Dreier, a California Republican, during a recent House Judiciary subcommittee hearing as he held aloft a prototype of the card.
"And they can't have one of these unless they're here legally," Dreier said. "And so what does that say to someone who is here illegally? `I might as well go home because I can't feed my family in the U.S."
Dreier acknowledged, however, that his legislation likely would not cause an exodus of the estimated 10 million or more undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Dreier said he supports a guest-worker program to allow many of the undocumented workers to come forward. Allowing immigration officials to register many of these individuals would improve homeland security because "it is a security threat to us to have literally millions of people here illegally because among them could be potential terrorists," he said.
And with the growing concern on Capitol Hill over identity theft, often facilitated by misused Social Security numbers, there is bipartisan interest and momentum in Congress to deal a blow to such crimes. Some lawmakers view the legislation as a way to do that.
Dreier, the bill's chief sponsor, leads the powerful House Rules Committee, which sets the terms for debate on legislation once it is on the House floor. In addition, the lawmaker perhaps most responsible for moving the REAL ID legislation through Congress, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, supports Dreier's legislation.
Dreier also argues that his bill could be the solution to the widespread abuse of Social Security numbers.
There are 280 million active Social Security cards, with 5.4 million issued in 2003, the last year for which there are statistics available. About 1.2 million of those were issued to immigrants legally authorized to work in the United States.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.