Immigration Bill Would Require Status Checks

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The House votes Thursday on a tough new immigration bill that includes a provision requiring employers to run computer checks on new hires to make sure they are in the United States legally. A small number of businesses already use the check system by choice.


The House of Representatives votes today on one of the toughest immigration bills to come before the House in a decade. A key provision aims to stop the migration of hundreds of thousands of illegal workers by stopping employers from hiring them. Businesses would have to run a check by computer or by phone to verify that new hires are legal. Eventually, they would also have to check existing employees. This program is already being used voluntarily on a small scale, though it has its critics. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.


The program's called Basic Pilot and it's been available in about six states since 1996, nationally for the past year. Only about 3,500 businesses have signed up. Rosemary Jenks of the anti-illegal immigration group NumbersUSA says the idea is to detect document fraud and it's as easy as a few clicks on the computer.

(Soundbite of keyboard)

Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (NumbersUSA): So this is the first page you get when you sign in.

LUDDEN: The computer asks for the employee's name, Social Security number, date of birth, and for lawful aliens, an alien identification number.

Ms. JENKS: I hit this, submit initial verification, and it will pop up before you blink with a response.

LUDDEN: At least it will if the employee is a US citizen. Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute says Basic Pilot checks information first against a Social Security database which works pretty well. But for non-citizens, it also checks against data at the Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. TAMAR JACOBY (Manhattan Institute): Those databases are not as accurate. They're not kept up to date in this timely a way. And there are often mistakes because of foreigners' names and, you know, varied spellings of a foreign name.

LUDDEN: In fact, Jacoby said in 2003, more than half of legal immigrants run through the Basic Pilot program were wrongly deemed not eligible for work. She says with such a discrepancy between how the program works for citizens vs. non-citizens, it's a recipe for employers to discriminate.

Ms. JACOBY: You're going to be hesitant to use foreign workers because you're going to think there are going to be more delays, more snafus, more paperwork. So they're not going to ask is this is a legal foreigner, an illegal foreigner. They're just going to say, `I'm not really sure I want to get a person in here who might be a foreigner.'

LUDDEN: Jacoby suggests that creating a swipe card for employees could eliminate some of these errors. She also says the program should be phased in more slowly that the House bill calls for to give the government time to work out the kinks. The US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups say the same. They aren't opposed in principle but they worry mandating the program as is would be a mess. Then there's the issue of enforcement.

Mr. RICH STANA: One of the problems with work site enforcement as it is configured today is it basically keeps honest people honest.

LUDDEN: Rich Stana studied Basic Pilot for the Government Accounting Office. He says even with the system in place, there still wouldn't be nearly enough resources to make sure companies complied.

Mr. STANA: If you're unscrupulous, there is very little likelihood that you are going to be visited and have your work forced examined for workplace authorization. Very little chance. And so what this Basic Pilot would do would continue to keep honest people honest, but without a credible enforcement arm, it won't do much more than that.

LUDDEN: Despite such shortcomings, analysts and business groups alike say there's a sense that some type of computerized employee check is inevitable, but many want a guest worker program enacted with it and that's likely to be the focus of much debate in the House today.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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