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Big brother immigration screening system fraught with problems

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  • Steven L. Robinson
    Immigration screening could snag too many workers A system to verify the legality of every employee within 3 years -- key to the Senate s measure -- is
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 2, 2007
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      Immigration screening could snag too many workers

      A system to verify the legality of every employee within 3 years -- key to
      the Senate's measure -- is controversial and little-used.

      By Molly Hennessy-Fiske & Jim Puzzanghera, Staff Writers
      The Los Angeles Times
      May 29, 2007

      Washington - As a child, Traci Hong came from South Korea to the United
      States as a legal immigrant. Fifteen years ago, she became a U.S. citizen.

      Yet in March, when Hong, now 37, applied for a congressional staff job, an
      employee screening system that is the linchpin of the Senate's immigration
      legislation told a different story: It flagged her as being here illegally.

      Hong spent eight days navigating the bureaucracy to correct a database error
      and convince officials that she was entitled to work here - and she's an
      immigration lawyer, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and its
      law school.

      "It really made me realize how difficult it would be for someone who does
      not have a legal education, higher education, English skills and an
      understanding employer who allows them to take time off," she said.

      The screening system, called Basic Pilot, is run by the Department of
      Homeland Security. So far, it's being used by only about 16,700 employers -
      2,100 or so in California - out of 7 million nationwide.

      But it would dramatically expand into a national electronic employment
      verification system under the Senate proposal; within 18 months, it could be
      used to check every new hire in the country. As the legislation is written,
      all 150 million workers in the U.S. would have to submit to the checks
      within three years.

      Supporters call Basic Pilot an efficient blueprint to increase enforcement
      of laws that bar the hiring of illegal immigrants. It is a central component
      of what has been dubbed the "grand bargain" between Democrats and
      Republicans on immigration; in fact, the bill's proposed guest worker
      program couldn't begin until the verification system was capable of
      screening every new hire in the country.

      "That's going to be very hard. It's complex," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a
      leading backer of the bill. "It's going to have to work."

      But opponents - who include conservatives, small businesses, human resource
      managers and civil liberties groups - are dubious. They say the current
      program infringes on privacy, doesn't stop identity fraud and will become
      more expensive and cumbersome as it expands, bogged down by technical
      problems and a database with inaccurate information.

      "We're handing over the power to the federal government to tell us yes, we
      can work, or no, we can't work, and because the database isn't what it
      should be, there are people who are going to be told they can't work," said
      Tyler Moran, employment policy director for the National Immigration Law
      Center, which advocates for immigrant rights. "This is going to affect every
      single worker in the country, and this is going to affect every business in
      the country."

      Businesses check eligibility by submitting information from an I-9 form,
      required of all new hires, which includes Social Security and other
      documentation showing an employee's right to live and work in the U.S.

      If the information is valid, the system sends the business a confirmation.
      If not, a "tentative nonconfirmation" is returned, and the business asks the
      employee to provide additional proof of identity or citizenship. Files are
      even checked by hand before the government finally identifies an employee as
      illegal.

      Although the Internet-based process usually takes seconds, any glitch can
      take days to resolve, said Homeland Security spokesman Chris Bentley. About
      200 businesses join the program each week; so far this year, Basic Pilot has
      processed 1.7 million inquiries - the same as in all of 2006.

      Even as more businesses join the program, Bentley said, the system's error
      rate of 5% is falling. But a Social Security Administration report last year
      estimated that 17.8 million Social Security records, or 4.1%, contained
      discrepancies that could tie up the system.

      Traci Hong, for example, was stopped because her records, like those of 7%
      of naturalized foreigners, failed to indicate that she had been granted U.S.
      citizenship. A change in immigration status, marriage or divorce needs to be
      reported to Social Security, said Moran of the National Immigration Law
      Center.

      Basic Pilot has become popular as workplace enforcement becomes a
      grass-roots issue. Communities across the country - including in Mission
      Viejo; Valley Park, Mo.; and Hazleton, Pa. - have passed laws requiring
      screening for city employees.

      This year, lawmakers in 41 states are considering legislation to strengthen
      workplace enforcement of immigration laws, according to the National
      Conference of State Legislatures. The Tennessee Senate approved a bill this
      spring mandating the use of Basic Pilot by all employers in the state; Rhode
      Island lawmakers are considering a similar measure.

      Proponents say it is the most affordable way to crack down on illegal
      immigrants.

      "The best thing we can do in terms of workplace enforcement is expanding
      electronic verification," said Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at
      the conservative Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, calling the
      program "a bargain when you look at what we spend on unmanned drones and
      sensors along the southern border."

      Managers at Swift & Co. meatpacking plants liked the system too when they
      signed up in 1997, a year after it began. They considered it an efficient
      way to screen their 15,000 workers in Colorado, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota,
      Nebraska, Texas and Utah.

      Then federal immigration officials raided six plants in December. Swift lost
      1,232 illegal workers - each of whom, the company said at the time, had been
      verified by Basic Pilot.

      The raids, Swift spokesman Sean McHugh said last week, exposed a "fatal
      flaw": Since the databases it taps don't include photographs, it's
      impossible to tell whether the person submitting a Social Security number is
      the one to whom it was issued. Although Homeland Security files contain
      photos, federal law bars agencies from sharing Social Security numbers - so
      staff can't compare files.

      "What you see now more and more are valid IDs used under fraudulent
      circumstances," McHugh said.

      Homeland Security intends to add photos and biometric information, such as
      fingerprints, to Basic Pilot, Bentley said, but such developments are still
      being tested.

      Personnel managers and business groups argue that the system's error rate is
      higher than Homeland Security acknowledges - 15% rather than 5% - and would
      rise exponentially if the system were expanded to include data, such as
      photographs, that could prove difficult to transmit and process.

      "The free flow of labor and the ability to bring people on board quickly
      will be highly disrupted by this," said Susan R. Meisinger, president and
      chief executive of the Society for Human Resource Management, which has
      200,000 members, including about 15,000 in California. "Human resources
      shouldn't be America's Border Patrol agents."

      Employee screening, she said, should be done by private vendors rather than
      by a government system that's likely to get tied up in political wrangling
      as costs rise.

      This year alone, the system cost $114 million to upgrade. It would cost $405
      million to expand the system to handle 55 million new workers over the
      course of five years, according to a December estimate by the Congressional
      Budget Office. Re-verifying the 150 million workers nationwide would
      probably cost much more.

      Traci Hong's employer, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), is in a prime position
      to shape the program's future - and also has concerns.

      Lofgren, who heads the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on
      immigration, citizenship, refugees, border security and international law,
      said she was worried about which government agencies would have access to
      the database without a warrant.

      She also said the system's error rate would mistakenly shut people out of
      their jobs. "We will hear from them in our offices if they are told they're
      being fired because of a database glitch," she said.

      But she and other Democrats also recognize that a new, stricter workplace
      screening system is necessary for any immigration legislation to win GOP
      support. They prefer that the government avoid relying too much on Basic
      Pilot, and instead study what the best system would be, then launch it in
      phases, perhaps with the support of private firms that can develop and
      deploy the technology more quickly.

      "This is an important thing to do - I'm for doing it - but there are
      important technical and political questions we have to answer first,"
      Lofgren said.

      http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/washingtondc/la-na-verify29may29,1,1
      873353.story

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