By TYCHE HENDRICKS
San Francisco Chronicle
May 23, 2006
A verification system will be essential to the success of any new immigration law, experts say, because nothing else will ensure that illegal immigrants are unemployable. Without it, they say, no amnesty program or border fence will prevent the formation of a new shadow job market that would draw millions of new undocumented workers.
Civil liberties advocates worry that an extensive database linking Social Security data with immigration information would invade Americans' privacy and could lead to warrantless government data mining, be a ripe target for identity thieves and foster a "no work" list akin to the federal government's "no fly" list.
Other experts fear that a multibillion-dollar, mandatory system - which would be almost 1,500 times the size of a pilot program that already has encountered logistical problems - would be rife with errors and delays.
But friends and foes of immigration alike say there's no better solution.
"Everybody who wants there to be meaningful (immigration) enforcement recognizes that the centerpiece has got to be workplace enforcement, and employment verification is a central component of that," said Steve Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., a think tank that favors reducing both legal and illegal immigration.
The American Civil Liberties Union has long opposed such a plan, which it considers a step toward a national identity card that the government could use to track the movements of Americans without their consent.
"This will create privacy consequences that are profound," said Tim Sparapani, the ACLU legislative counsel for privacy rights. "We'll be gathering enormous amounts of sensitive information in an unsecured format. ... These databases will inevitably be used by the government for purposes other than employment verification. The government has an insatiable appetite, post 9/11, for information. And it will take and aggregate and sift and data mine any source of information about the populace that it can get its hands on."
The Senate is considering adding safeguards to the immigration bill it is debating that would protect workers from government error and require that any verification system be 99 percent accurate before it is rolled out.
But Sparapani and others said the more data that are compiled in one place on an individual, the easier it will be for hackers or corrupt government clerks to steal the individual's identity.
"We're creating a massive black market for identity theft, and the consequence is that all these legal workers will go apply for a job in the Lower Haight, and they'll find that a person in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has been using their identity," Sparapani said. "And they'll have tremendous difficulty showing the employer and the government that they are work-eligible."
With the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, it became a crime to hire a person who was in the United States without authorization. Every newly hired worker must present his employer with documents that show he is a citizen or legal permanent resident or has temporary work authorization. Employers must inspect the documents - from a list of 27 possible items - and attest to the government that the papers appear genuine.
But fake driver's licenses, Social Security cards, even birth certificates and passports have proliferated. Enforcement has been lax - the number of employers fined each year declined from 417 in 1999 to three in 2004, according to a 2005 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Most observers say the current system is a sham.
In its stead, a voluntary Web-based system, launched as a pilot in 1996, is used by 6,200 employers at 25,000 hiring sites, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Employers enter a worker's name, date of birth, citizenship status, Social Security number and other identifying information. Basic Pilot, as the program is known, then checks the data against a Social Security database and an immigration services database.
Data must be verified manually 15 percent of the time, according to immigration services spokeswoman Sharon Rummery, which she said can take seven to 10 days.
A report released last fall by the Migration Policy Institute found that such delays, which affected foreign-born workers much more often than U.S.-born workers, sometimes led employers to pass over job candidates who were not immediately confirmed. The institute's report also raised concerns about the accuracy of the federal immigration database and questioned how well the system would perform if expanded to all of the nation's 8.5 million employers.
Both the immigration enforcement bill passed by the House in December and the more liberal bill being debated this week in the Senate call for an employment verification system akin to Basic Pilot. Both bills also call for increased penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants and for stepped-up enforcement to spot such employers.
Increased enforcement, combined with a foolproof verification system, will go a long way toward curbing illegal immigration, said Deborah Meyers, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington.
"Unless you can change norms so it becomes not acceptable to hire illegal workers, it's really difficult to get a grip on the illegal immigration problem," she said. "All the money we invest in border enforcement is not going to pay off unless we have a workplace enforcement system that works."
The Senate bill proposes phasing in the system over five years, beginning with large employers and those in security-sensitive businesses like ports and power plants, and including provisions that protect workers, such as allowing them to review their files to correct errors.
Estimates for the cost of expanding the system nationally range from $2 billion to almost $12 billion.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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