Firms Testing Web-Based Immigration Check
By LAURA WIDES, Associated Press Writer
Sun Sep 4,
Many Americans focus on the border when they consider the fight against illegal immigration. But some experts say the real battle should be in the workplace to stop the hiring of people without work visas.
Simple enough in theory, but how can you tell who's an illegal immigrant?
Many companies now do little more than eyeball documents, saying they lack the expertise and resources to go any further — and they seldom face federal sanctions.
But across the country, a small group of businesses is quietly testing a Department of Homeland Security program that can check immigration status with a few clicks on the Internet. The program will likely be at the heart of any federal immigration reform, even as critics say it needs improvement.
"It's not a question of 'can we fix this?' It's 'when and how?'" said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank who specializes in immigration.
Many businesses, however, oppose making the program mandatory because it would stop them from hiring illegal workers and force them to pay higher wages, said Maria Echeveste, an immigration expert and political consultant who worked as a deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
"I see this as a battle over whether we are going to be hypocrites or not," she said. "If we're not ready to give up cheap labor, than we should shut up about illegal immigrants."
Under the "Basic Pilot Program," employers enter a person's name, birth date and other data on a Web site. The information is then run through databases maintained by the Social Security Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Employers never learn if the individual might be in the country illegally. They simply get a "yes" or "no" on the person's work status. Applicants can appeal if they disagree with the results.
The program doesn't include fingerprint or other biometric checks to determine if applicants are using someone else's Social Security number or name. Ideally, the checks would eventually include a photo identification card supplied by the Social Security Administration. But the agency has estimated it could take at least $4 billion to produce such cards.
Companies using the program said the latest version is quicker and easier to use than people might think. But experts caution that it needs tweaks before Congress could roll out a mandatory version nationwide.
Among other things, they worry that it could hurt legal immigrants, whose visa status often changes faster than DHS can update its databases, and who sometimes use the surnames of both parents, which can further trip up the process.
No one has estimated the expense of a nationwide rollout. But expanding the pilot to serve the more than 8 million businesses in the country would cost the government much more than the $1.5 million currently being spent on the program.
Congress will likely consider the issue when it reconvenes on Sept. 7. All the major immigration bills moving through Washington call for an expanded version of the program.
Ayesha Tully hires dozens of factory workers and secretaries each week at the Staffmark temp agency office in the Orange County, Calif., city of Cypress. She prefers the pilot program to merely glancing at documents to see if they look fraudulent.
"I used to get nervous. What if I tell someone that the card they have isn't official, but what if it is?" said Tully, who began using the system earlier this year. "Now the computer checks."
Staffmark's computer system won't allow Tully to put a new employee on the payroll unless she's run them through the federal databases.
Just knowing a company uses the program can deter undocumented workers from applying.
Eliseo Flores Canales, 58, went to the Staffmark office looking for factory work. After glancing at a poster describing the firm's participation in the DHS pilot, the recently arrived Salvadoran mumbled that he didn't speak enough English and left.
Outside, Flores said he was afraid of having his illegal status discovered.
"This kind of program affects us. People come here, and a lot only have false documents," he said in Spanish.
The push for workplace enforcement of immigration law has languished since Congress passed a bill in 1986 holding companies responsible for checking the status of potential hires.
The early tracking systems were slow and inaccurate, and federal enforcement agents met fierce industry opposition, forcing the government to back off.
The pilot program was started in 1996 in a handful of states and has grown by 40 percent since it expanded nationwide last December. About 700,000 job applicants are checked annually, said USCIS spokesman Chris Bentley.
Five full-time DHS agents manually check the applications of those not immediately cleared to work by computers.
In the past three years, an average of 83 percent of applicants were authorized to work: 81 percent were immediately cleared and about 3 percent were approved in 24 hours or more, according to a review of DHS data by The Associated Press.
No conclusive data was kept on the remaining 16 percent, so it's unclear if they were trying to work illegally or if they were legitimate applicants who got frustrated by the bureaucracy and gave up. That uncertainty concerns critics of the program.
Businesses have joined the program for a variety of reasons. A number of firms in the meat industry decided to use it after federal raids in 1999 led to fines.
"It's a better way to do business," said Mark Klein, spokesman for Cargill Inc., whose subsidiary, Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Meat Solutions, employs about 22,000 people in the United States and has 22 factories. Klein said the company has used the program since 1996.
No matter how efficient the program, it will only work if the government provides resources to enforce sanctions against those who continue to hire illegals, said attorney Laura Reiff, co-chair of the business-backed Essential Worker Immigration Coalition for immigration reform.
The cost of the enforcement effort is relative, she said.
"It will cost some money, just like building a big fence around the United States will cost money," Reiff said.
Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press