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Thinking Twice: The Catch of the Biometric Bargaining Chip

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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July 29, 2009

Reform is in the air, and immigration reform will likely follow health care reform on the Congressional to-do list. While this could be great news, it seems like we will be asked to swallow just about anything, including mandatory electronic employment verification and increased local enforcement of federal immigration law, even if it results in racial profiling, in order to get legalization of the 12-14 million undocumented people currently in the country. And, one of the scariest proposals that is being seriously discussed inside the Beltway is a biometric worker identification card (PDF).

This is Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) baby, and on Tuesday, July 21, he held a hearing about the proposal. Now, biometrics are all kinds of scary for substantive reasons, but there’s at least one reason Sen. Schumer’s proposal should be terrifying even to those who really want legalization. Sen. Schumer would hate for “American workers to pay any money to the government in order to obtain employment,” so he proposes covering the costs of biometric IDs for every U.S. worker with “fees and fines charged to those seeking legalization.” So, Senator Schumer is suggesting that 12 million to 14 million immigrants should pay for the biometrics for over 150 million U.S. workers. This idea is simply untenable.

After a 178 percent rate increase in 2007 (PDF), it currently costs $930 to apply for a green card (PDF). (The $600 charged to a child under the age of 14 who applies for permanent residency jointly with a parent should seem like a bargain.) It costs $595 to apply for U.S. citizenship. That’s, by the way, an 80 percent increase from 2007. And, of course, everyone agrees that immigrants seeking to legalize will have to pay “an appropriate [read: hefty] fine (PDF).” When we talk about the undocumented, we are often (though not exclusively) talking about low-wage workers who toil long hours at or below minimum wage. Already, legal immigrants with their papers in order cannot afford to apply for permanent residency or to naturalize. Some apply for one family member each year, which means it may be nearly a decade before an entire family has status. If immigrants are to pay for biometrics for the entire country, immigration fees will have to grow once again, which would result in the second exponential fee hike in three years. Coupled with a substantial fine and limited window in which to seek status, it would put adjustment of status out of reach for many otherwise eligible individuals and families.

Those who support legalization should take a moment and consider the following scenario: In order to have legalization as part of immigration reform, Congress also enacts Sen. Schumer’s plan. In that case, the costs associated with legalization become so prohibitive that undocumented people who would like to come forward and adjust their status are financially unable to. We would continue to have an undocumented population living in the shadows. Only after immigration reform, they may be subject to a much harsher legal regime that includes local enforcement of federal immigration laws, complete with racial profiling (PDF), and an employment verification regime that makes it much harder for everyone, including undocumented people, to work. Maybe we should all think twice.

UPDATE: This blog post has been amended to include information about the fines that will be charged to undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship.

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