Nearly every film using Europe as a backdrop for international intrigue, especially those featuring Nazis in black leather trench coats, employs a scene in which the hero is crossing transnational borders on a slow-moving train. As he nervously exhales a cloud of blue smoke from an unfiltered cigarette, the authorities move from berth to berth checking identity papers. The Gestapo man flings open the door to a private car, letting in the roar of rolling train wheels grinding against the rails. He arrests the subject of his inquiry or turns back the identification papers with a silent yet suspicious or even knowing smirk, then slams the door shut, his two machine-guns toting subalterns in tow. The main problem for the men making The Great Escape, for instance, was forging credible identity papers to travel unmolested behind German lines until they reached the Underground. The plot of Casablanca? Saloon keeper Rick Blaine must procure travel documents for concentration camp escapee Victor Laszlo.

But Nazis are hardly history’s last government officials to force citizens to carry some form of national identification card or work permit. Most European countries require it today, and because illegal immigration in these United States has reached crisis proportions, some people, including one influential Republican senator, want to import the idea.

Leading the charge is Senator Alan Simpson, author of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, more popularly known as Simpson-Mazzoli, the genesis for the identity card proposal. Though Simpson-Mazzoli penalizes employers with fines and jail terms if they hire illegal aliens, it’s had some side effects Mr. Simpson didn’t anticipate: to avoid any chance of a federal penalty, many employers simply stopped hiring Americans who were foreign-looking and sounding, mostly Hispanics and Asians. The GAO reports that such discrimination is “serious” and “widespread,” which has set off alarm bells in our racially sensitive Congress.

Mr. Simpson has answered them with Senate bill 2446, which would authorize the Health and Human Services secretary to issue a new Social Security card “resistant to counterfeiting and tampering” that can “reliably determine” that the “person with the identity claimed by the bearer is eligible to be employed in the United States.” The card would contain a photograph and other improvements, but would “not be required to be carried on one’s person,” its only purpose being to determine an individual’s eligibility to work in the United States.

Senator Daniel Moynihan has introduced similar legislation that would require new Social Security cards to be made of “tamper-resistant material such as plastic or polyester” and carry the accoutrements of a credit card: “magnetic stripes, holograms and integrated circuits.” These brave New World cards might also carry “biometric” tools like fingerprints and retinal scan systems. Though staff member Ed Lopez says Senator Moynihan’s point was to “have a better symbol of” the Social Security program—in other words, a nifty looking card to make a financially and philosophically bankrupt program look more prosperous than it really is—the legislation says it must be “developed to provide a more reliable means of verifying eligibility for employment under” Simpson-Mazzoli. The bills are awaiting action in the Judiciary and Finance committees.

The goal is to close our open southern border by enhancing an employer’s ability to determine whether he unknowingly hires illegal aliens. Employers wouldn’t discriminate because they’d know they were hiring real Americanos. For their part, the illegals would stay home because they wouldn’t be able to find work.

Supporting the idea, David Simcox of the Center for Immigration Studies warns, “the national problems [of illegal immigration] have reached the point of severity that we must ask for public cooperation” in using “secure” documents to prove work eligibility and perhaps even citizenship. Mr. Simcox says four million Social Security numbers were fraudulently used in 1986 and, quoting immigration scholar David North, says that “1.9 million amnestied aliens had either no Social Security number or had bought numbers from shady operators or made up their own numbers.” Moreover, “nearly a fifth of the 1.8 million who applied for [Simpson-Mazzoli’s] general amnesty originally entered the country not by sneaking across the border but by passing legitimate ports of entry using documents that were altered or obtained under false pretenses.” Nearly six million foreigners reside illegally in the United States, a number growing by 250,000 annually, and 500,000 of them carry false identification. In short, employers need a way to prove they’re hiring American citizens that will also discourage illegal immigration.

A more novel rationale for a federal work permit is that European countries have adopted such permits or national identification cards. Says Mr. Simpson, “nearly all Western nations, including Canada and Mexico, have employer-sanction laws. . . . And if you’re going to classify countries that have a national identification card as a totalitarian government, how do you describe France and Germany? Because they do.”

Whatever the gravity of illegal immigration, thinking Americans might ask some questions before they begin cooperating in a scheme that would vastly improve the federal government’s ability to code and trace their daily business. Mr. Simcox admits that suddenly “asking” Americans to carry a national identification card would be politically intolerable, adding that more severe forms of internal identification control would require “back door” proposals like Mr. Simpson’s. They sound benign—the card won’t be used by the IRS, you won’t have to carry it, etc.—yet something about recent history forebodes an expanded program by which Congress might increase its ability to collect taxes from “delinquents,” to cite just one grim possibility. And if this federal work permit can’t sweep back the tide of immigrants from Mexico, wouldn’t Congress be encouraged to adopt stronger measures?

The problem with the idea is that the only people who will use this card aren’t breaking the law. Like gun control laws, a national work permit will affect only those who obey laws to begin with. Criminals don’t care about gun control statutes or about civil and religious codes forbidding murder and robbery. Why should anyone expect illegal aliens to stop flooding the country because Uncle Sam issues a new improved Social Security card? Anyone who uses it won’t need it.

As for the “Europeans are doing it” argument, Mr. Simpson and his followers haven’t told the whole truth. France, which uses its national identification card for everything from immigration control and collecting taxes to handing out welfare, hasn’t been able to stop the illegal immigration of North Africans. And whatever Europe’s success with national identification cards, or any other policy for that matter, it shouldn’t necessarily serve as a paradigm for the States. Mr. Simpson might recall that our ancestors not only left Europe to escape the kind of government philosophy a national identification card represents, but also staked their lives and fortunes on a war to cast off the legalistic and petty intrusions of the British Crown. If they like the European way of doing things. Mr. Simpson and his followers should return whence their ancestors came.

When Jerry Seper of the Washington Times landed in Chula Vista, California, for his five part series on illegal immigration, one evening he visited an illegal entry point with a border control officer. After about four hundred Mexicans gathered at the hole in the fence, the officer told Seper they’d have to make tracks because “they’ll come up here and drag the three of us across the border and kill us.”

That story is emblematic of the simple truth that Congress and the President have abdicated their constitutional responsibility to protect the lives and property of American citizens and defend our national borders from a foreign invasion. As with laws respecting murder and robbery, our leaders have failed to enforce immigration laws, so to make things easy they’re prepared to “ask” American citizens to bear the burden of reporting to state and federal governments. Simcox and his adherents reply that Congress won’t appropriate enough money to enhance the Border Control authorities, which is true enough. But that’s only because Congress is too busy spending money elsewhere.

If our elected officials want to stop illegal immigration, they can do so without forcing—or “asking,” as they put it—the rest of us law-abiding citizens to carry identification papers. A few simple rules would suffice: no work permits for foreigners; no visas for Mexicans except government officials and businessmen; all travelers must present return plane tickets or travel plans at the point of entry, plus an address and phone number where they can be reached; anyone cutting through a fence or illegally crossing an open border will be shot.

If the last sounds draconian, at least it is a protective measure for the citizens of this country, which cannot be said about expanding the federal government’s power to meddle in people’s lives with snooping devices like identification cards and retina scanners. Or do you look forward to the day when a federal agent comes into your Amtrak sleeper to demand: “You’re papers, please”?