WASHINGTON - Driver's license photographs and biographic information of most Americans would be accessible through an expanded Department of Homeland Security nationwide computer network if the immigration legislation pending before the Senate becomes law.
The proposed expansion is part of an effort to crack down on illegal immigration by requiring all employers to confirm the identity and legal status of any new workers by tapping into a Homeland Security Department system called E-Verify, which is now used voluntarily by about 7 percent of employers in the United States.
The proposal already faces objections from some civil liberties lawyers and certain members of Congress, who worry about the potential for another sprawling data network that could ultimately be the equivalent of a national ID system.
"Over time, this could become a single, national, searchable database of vital biographic information and photographs of nearly every American," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. "I want to make sure we embed privacy protections in the system, both in how it is built and administered so that data cannot easily be stolen, and also that the information is only used for legitimate purposes."
Homeland Security Department officials consider such fears unwarranted, because E-Verify simply reaches out to other existing government computer systems, such as Social Security records or passport records, to confirm a person's identity and work eligibility.
"It is not a stand-alone database that collects and stores," said Christopher Bentley, a spokesman at the department's Citizenship and Immigration Services division, which runs E-Verify. "It pings the other databases that are already established for confirmation, and once that process is complete the information disappears."
The Senate legislation makes it clear that the proposed law should not be interpreted to "permit or allow" any other government agency to use the E-Verify data for any purpose other than employment verification. But it does not explicitly prohibit such a use, as the law governing the census does, critics said.
In fact, privacy guidelines issued by the Homeland Security Department governing E-Verify say it may, on a case-by-case basis, "give law enforcement agencies extracts of information on potential fraud, discrimination or other illegal activities."
Bentley said this provision was intended to prevent individual cases of wrongdoing, and not to allow broad searches of the data that are linked together by the E-Verify system.