Big brother immigration screening system fraught with problems
- 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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
This email was cleaned by emailStripper, available for free from