Senators push Obama for biometric national ID card

In a meeting with the president, Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham say that a federally issued ID card with biometric information such as a handprint is necessary to curb illegal immigration.

Declan McCullagh
Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
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Two U.S. senators met with President Obama on Thursday to push for a national ID card with biometric information such as a fingerprint, hand scan, or iris scan that all employers would be required to verify.

In an opinion article published in Friday's edition of the Washington Post, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) say the new identification cards will "ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs" and "dramatically decrease illegal immigration."

Schumer and Graham pitched the idea to President Obama during a private meeting Thursday at the White House. Graham said afterward that Obama "welcomed" their proposal for a new ID card law; the White House said in a statement that the senators' plan was "promising."

This push for a national ID is part of what the senators say is a necessary overhaul of immigration law, including additional border security, more temporary workers, and a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the United States. It comes just two days before a rally in Washington, D.C. sponsored by groups including the AFL-CIO, Farmworker Justice, and the National Council of La Raza that also calls for amnesty.

Linking national ID cards to immigration reform is a popular idea in Washington political circles. After all, if every U.S. citizen has a biometric-equipped cards, the thinking goes, it's easy to order employers not to give a job to someone without one.

But concerns about privacy, security, and federalism have torpedoed each one of these proposals so far. A similar national ID plan--which also required that employers do verifications--sunk President Bush's broader proposal for immigration reform in 2007. A proposal three years earlier by Rep. David Drier (R-Calif.) to create federal ID cards with Americans' photograph, Social Security number, and an "encrypted electronic strip" with additional information was even less successful.

Then there was the controversial Real ID Act, which tried unsuccessfully to compel states to standardize their drivers' licenses. But a libertarian grassroots revolt, including an anti-Real ID vote a few weeks ago in the Utah legislature, has halted Homeland Security's plans. (Rep. Ron Paul, the former Republican presidential candidate, argued it would do little to curb legal immigration.)

Under the Schumer-Graham proposal, extracting biometric information from hundreds of millions of Americans is no trivial task. It could mean extraordinary lines at regional Social Security offices--and an inconvenience for Americans switching jobs who haven't had their retina or DNA scanned in and stored on the ID card.

"We would require all U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who want jobs to obtain a high-tech, fraud-proof Social Security card," the senators' opinion article says. "Each card's unique biometric identifier would be stored only on the card; no government database would house everyone's information. The cards would not contain any private information, medical information or tracking devices."

A Wall Street Journal article published March 8 included an interview with Schumer during which he said: "It's the nub of solving the immigration dilemma politically speaking...If you say they can't get a job when they come here, you'll stop it." It said the most likely type of biometric data to be included would be a scan of the veins in the top of the hand.

"Our framework remains a work in progress," Graham said in a statement after Thursday's meeting. "The president welcomed the framework and indicated that he needs time to review the structure. We will share our ideas with our colleagues in the weeks ahead, so we can finally solve this difficult problem."