Employers Flock to Government Screening Program

The government's Basic Pilot program, which employers can voluntarily use to screen prospective employees, tells whether someone is legally eligible to work in the U.S. In the past year, the number of employers using the program has doubled.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

More and more companies are checking your immigration status electronically when you're hired. The Department of Homeland Security says a voluntary program to do that is growing dramatically. The number of companies signed up has doubled in the past year.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

The program's called Basic Pilot, and Congress wants to make it mandatory. In fact, it's one of the few things both the House and Senate agree on in their competing proposals to overhaul immigration.

Because of this, Gerri Ratliff of the Department of Homeland Security says her agency is now acting as if mandated computer checks will become law.

Ms. GERRI RATLIFF (Chief of Verification Division, Department of Homeland Security): I tell everyone we're pretending that the bill was enacted yesterday, because if we don't, we just won't be ready.

LUDDEN: Critics warn the program is not ready for large-scale use. Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza recently told Congress a 2002 Justice Department study found a four percent error rate. So, if it were mandated nationwide:

Ms. CECILIA MUNOZ (Vice President of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation, National Council of La Raza): A four percent error rate means about two million American workers every year could face denials or delay in employment as a result of government errors. That is an unacceptable level and it needs to be addressed.

LUDDEN: Homeland Security says it's working to halve the program's error rate by January, and will have a built-in appeals process.

Nearly 11,000 businesses now use Basic Pilot. That's twice the number from a year ago, though still a drop in the bucket of total employers. Gerri Ratliff says 200 companies a week are signing on.

One reason may be sheer fear. Homeland Security has stepped up its workplace raids this year, even bringing criminal charges against dozens of employers. The agency also expects a big jump in enrollment as states like Georgia and Colorado enact tough new state laws penalizing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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