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"Immigration bill includes worker screening"



Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Immigration bill includes worker screening
By SUZANNE GAMBOA 
The Associated Press    


WASHINGTON (AP) - The nation's employers say a major problem with system
overload is on the way if Congress forces them to prove, electronically,
that all their workers are legal.

Currently, 16,727 employers check employees through a system previously
known as Basic Pilot and now called the Electronic Employer Verification
System. They have checked 1.77 million employees, according to Citizenship
and Immigration Services, an agency within the Homeland Security Department.

Current immigration law leaves it to employers to verify that they are
hiring legal workers. But that law, passed in 1986, has not been enforced
strictly.

Immigration legislation pending in the Senate would require that Social
Security numbers, identification and other information supplied by all U.S.
workers be run through the electronic system. If the proposal becomes law,
employers would have to check all new hires within 18 months of its
enactment, and check all other employees within three years.

That could mean millions more employers logging on to a system that, right
now, is still under development.

"I just don't think this is a realistic approach," said Susan R. Meisinger,
president of the Society for Human Resource Management, a suburban
Washington-based association of human resources professionals. To get to all
new hires in a year, she said, the Homeland Security Department would have
to sign up 20,000 employers a day.

There are an estimated 7 million to 8 million employers and 140 million
employees in the U.S., business and labor officials say. Under the Senate
proposal, employers who have illegal workers on the payroll could face fines
from $5,000 per worker to up to $75,000 and six months in jail per worker.

Screening proponents say the requirement is needed because too many
employers are hiring illegal immigrants, whether knowingly or unwittingly.

The worker check system can't verify the accuracy of all information
submitted to an employer, including drivers licenses and state
identification cards obtained with stolen or borrowed birth certificates.

That was a problem for the pork and beef processor Swift & Co., which had
been using the system for 10 years when its six plants were raided by
Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year. More than 1,200 immigrant
workers were arrested; Swift itself wasn't charged.

Di Ann Sanchez, vice president of human resources at Dallas-Fort Worth
International Airport, anticipates a bottleneck when the airport has to
ensure its 1,800 employees are legal - even those employed for decades.

"If you've got all these employers hitting that system, is the system
reliable to do it and not come back with a false negative or be so
overloaded that it won't allow employers to hire as quickly as we need to?"
Sanchez said.

Jock Scharfen, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,
told Congress last month that a recent study found the system could not
initially confirm eight of every 100 people checked.

Not all of those who were not confirmed are illegal workers. Sometimes the
system flags naturalized citizens whose citizenship status hasn't been
updated, or women who didn't change their names on Social Security records
when they married.

Confirmations are returned to employers in about three seconds, Scharfen
said. The Senate bill allows up to three business days for initial responses
to queries and 10 business days to confirm whether the worker is legal.

Chris Bentley, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the
agency is "confident the foundation has been laid so there can be rapid
expansion of the program as needed."

The system has given accurate and timely responses to the 800 branches of
Long Island, N.Y.-based Adecco Group North America, a firm that helps
companies find temporary and contract workers, said Bernadette Kenny, senior
vice president for human resources.

Kenny, however, is not confident that will continue when more employers are
using the system.

"The current proposals do not seem to account for the huge technology or
infrastructure support that would be needed to expand it," Kenny said. "If
you added every employer in America, even in my simple mind, without greatly
expanding that platform, it would crash."

Employers now collect information from the I-9 forms filled out by every
U.S. worker when they are hired. They submit the information, usually name,
birth date, Social Security number and citizenship or immigration status to
the Internet-based system. A Social Security database is checked to verify
the person is a citizen.

Noncitizens' information is checked with a Homeland Security immigration
database. Anyone whose status can't be verified has eight days to call a
toll free number and can't be fired or have adverse employment action taken
against him. DHS said it usually resolves such cases in three business days.

Critics are skeptical that Homeland Security can set up an employer
verification system to handle all workers in four years. They note the
agency has postponed a system to track foreigners entering and leaving the
country.

Homeland officials are testing a program now with about 50 employers that
will allow checks of photos on green cards, used by legal permanent
residents, to verify identities. The Senate proposal also calls for testing
a system in which employers would submit workers' fingerprints.

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