National Identification Cards: Why Does the ACLU Oppose a National I.D. System?

Over the past decade various proposals for a tamper-proof national identifier have cropped up repeatedly, usually in the context of immigration policy. The notion of using some form of national identification card has also surfaced in discussions of gun control and health care reform. 

Proponents suggest that a tamper-proof worker identification card would solve the problem of fraudulent work authorization documents. Some claim an I.D. card would deter illegal immigration and halt job discrimination resulting from the passage of the employer sanctions section of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. 

This September, the Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by former congresswoman Barbara Jordan, made recommendations to Congress on the U.S. immigration system. One of the commission's proposals was a universal national employee number, that would be linked to a national database. The number would be required of all citizens and residents. 

The ACLU has vigorously opposed the creation of a national employee I.D. number and/or card. It is a misplaced, superficial "quick fix" that poses serious threats to our civil liberties and civil rights. 

This is an impractical and ineffective proposal that would only threaten our right to privacy and foster new forms of discrimination. A national I.D. card would be no more reliable than the documents a person would show to obtain it and the cost to the American taxpayers just to issue the cards would be at least $2.5 billion, according to the Social Security Administration. 

The continuing recession in California has fueled the widespread tendency for politicians to blame immigrants for our economic woes. The call for a national I.D. card is just another example of tryingto sell a "quick fix" for much more complex social and economic problems. Regardless of one's views on immigration, a national identity card, with all its dangers, is not the answer. 

Just as the original restrictions on the use of the Social Security card have been all but eliminated, limits on a national I.D. number or card would be ignored or legislated away. There would be an irresistible temptation to use the data for purposes for which it was never intended, including government surveillance. Former Senator Alan Cranston has described the national I.D. card as "a primary tool of totalitarian governments to restrict the freedom of their citizens." 

"The ACLU .... opposes the use of Social Security cards and other governmentally issued documents as a condition of employment. Such a practice, in effect, creates an `employment passport,' which results in a universal identifier of all persons in the United States." -- Policy #329 

The ACLU does not object to efforts to make current documents more fraud or tamper-resistant as long as individual privacy is protected. The ACLU has, however, consistently opposed proposals that would establish a single document that serves as the sole form of employment identification for citizens and residents. 

Many Americans have an almost visceral reaction against the use -- and abuse -- of technology for intrusive purposes. A national I.D. card poses a grave threat to the civil liberties of all by creating a powerful tool for abuse of privacy rights. The system could not work without a national governmental database of every person in the U.S., with identifying information subject to continual updating. The linkage of government databases with corporate databases increases the likelihood that intimate personal information -- credit histories, spending habits, unlisted telephone numbers, voting, medical and employment histories -- could be easily accessed without a person's knowledge. 

A national I.D. card would essentially serve as an internal passport. It would create an easy new tool for government surveillance and could be used to target critics of the government, as has happened periodically throughout our nation's history. While the Social Security Act originally contained strict prohibitions against use of the Social Security card for unrelated purposes, over the past 50 years those prohibitions have been ignored or legislated into oblivion and restrictions on a national I.D. card would follow the same path. In his seminal book, Databanks in a Free Society, author Alan Westin wrote that "many dissenting and minority groups in [American] society ... view the establishment of such an identifier ... as a giant step toward tightening government control over the citizen for repressive purposes." 

The General Accounting Office (GAO) concluded in 1990 that employer sanctions had resulted in widespread employment discrimination against U.S. citizens and legal residents, with almost 20 percent of employers found to be engaging in such practices. Rather than eliminating discrimination, a national I.D. card would foster new forms of disrimination and harassment of anyone perceived as looking or sounding "foreign." Latinos, Asians, Caribbeans and other minorities would be the likely targets of status and identity checks from police, banks, merchants, landlords and others. Latino U.S. citizens are already subjected to random searches at border checkpoints. Failure to carry a national I.D. card would likely be viewed as a reason for search, detention or arrest of minorities. The stigma and humiliation of constantly proving lawful status is unacceptable. 

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