For Sen. Portman, an Uneasy Sense of 1986 Deja Vu

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), whose bipartisan amendment to fortify E-Verify was blocked Wednesday in a partisan quarrel over Senate procedure, described its purpose with the urgency of a man on a mission to avert a disaster he has seen before.

"I'm passionate about this," Portman said on the Senate floor. He insisted that his amendment was essential to the Gang of Eight's announced commitment to avoid another wave of illegal immigration with their bill for comprehensive immigration reform.

Rob Portman (R-OH)

"I do not believe that it will work if we do not have strong workplace verification," Portman said. Then he invoked history with a warning. "The flows of illegal immigration, just as we saw in 1986, cannot be curtailed unless there's strong enforcement at the workplace," he said.

Portman was referring, of course, to the notorious 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. That legislation, passed after six years of discussion in Congress, sought to balance amnesty with worksite enforcement based on a requirement that that employers verify the legal status of their workers.

But the verification regime was overwhelmed by illegal immigrants who presented fraudulent documents and employers who sometimes believed and often pretended that the documents were valid.

"We made a mistake in 1986," said Portman. He said his amendment would ensure the effectiveness of E-Verify. He cited a 2010 study (which used 2007-08 data) that showed that the current E-Verify system, in limited use around the country, failed to identify the illegal status of 54 percent of the illegal immigrants whose information was submitted to the system.

Portman's amendment, which he is co-sponsoring with Montana Democrat John Tester, would attempt to solve a problem whose progression a much younger Rob Portman watched closely more than 30 years ago. Portman was a staff member on the Jimmy Carter-era Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

That commission identified the need for a secure identifier. ''Enforcement can't work without some kind of identification,'' said then-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), a member of the commission who would later sponsor the 1986 act.

But amidst fears raised by civil libertarians that the identifier would lead toward a national identity card, commission members could not agree on what form the identifier should take.

Portman drew the history lesson Wednesday on the Senate floor.

"The 1986 bill casts a long shadow on this place. And we've got to be sure we don't repeat those mistakes," said Portman.

The Portman amendment would establish a system that would tap photo databases and use other information to verify a worker's identity and eligibility to work in the United States. It would also impose limitations to protect the privacy of a worker's personal information.

The amendment has won praise from Gang of Eight member John McCain (R-Ariz.), who on Wednesday said it would improve the Senate bill "enormously".

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also praised the amendment. But Reid insisted on wrapping it into the "border surge" amendment proposed earlier in the weak to win Republican votes. Reid turned down Portman's request for separate consideration and floor debate. Portman said that stand-alone consideration was necessary to demonstrate the centrality of the fortified E-Verify to the Senate bill.

The amendment also got caught in the crossfire between Reid and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the Republican floor manager in the debate. Reid said the Republicans were attempting to tie the bill up with endless votes on their amendments. Grassley claimed Reid was curtailing Republican amendments in a rush to have the bill passed this week.