Wall Street Journal article on employer use of illegal immigrants

The article explores at length employer resistance to burdensome documentation requirements. Bottom line: employers need workers and don’t care if they are undocumented workers. The “Basic Pilot” system set up by the federal government in the 1990s to improve verification has huge holes in it – which employers in effect favor.
The article published today (3/16/06) says that “But that can work to an employer’s advantage. As the number of Americans in low-skilled jobs shrinks, employers depend on illegal immigrants for an estimated 400,000 low-wage jobs in need of filling each year. Illegal immigrants keep costs low and the economy humming, so employers have shown little enthusiasm for enforcing immigration laws in the past.”
Business Groups Fault U.S. Plan To Identify Illegal Workers, by June Kronholz

When Tyson Foods Inc. hires a new worker, it electronically sends his or her name, Social Security number and citizenship status to a fledgling worker-verification system run by the Department of Homeland Security. The prosaically named Basic Pilot system checks the worker’s information against government databases, and either confirms that the new hire is eligible to work in the U.S. — or cautions that something’s amiss.
Congress is so optimistic that Basic Pilot will stanch the flood of job-seeking illegal immigrants to the U.S. that it plans to require all employers to use it as part of the immigration-overhaul legislation it’s now considering. Basic Pilot “works fairly well, as far as it goes,” agrees Tyson spokesman Archie Schaffer.
But as far as it goes isn’t yet very far. Basic Pilot can’t detect whether a worker is using a stolen identity, for example. Only a handful of employers have volunteered to use it, and Homeland Security concedes that its technology isn’t up to the job. All that explains why Basic Pilot is likely to set off a politically bruising battle when the issue reaches the Senate floor, and why employers could face grueling new regulation if it passes.
[On the Job]
Congress ordered up the Basic Pilot system a decade ago to see if it could plug the loopholes that now make it fairly easy for illegal immigrants to hold jobs in the U.S., and fairly risk-free for employers to hire them. Those loopholes were written into a 1986 immigration-overhaul law that for the first time required employers to verify both the identity and work eligibility of their new hires. To do that, Congress gave employers a menu of documents that workers can show them — passports, Social Security cards, even school report cards.
But Congress didn’t sanction employers for accepting fake documents or give them any help at spotting counterfeits. “All an employer has to do is ask for these documents; he doesn’t have to verify they’re accurate,” says Deborah Meyers of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank.
The result has been a boon to illegal immigrants, who can buy counterfeit papers. “The documents have become so good it’s difficult to distinguish between real and fake,” says Tyson’s Mr. Schaffer.
But that can work to an employer’s advantage. As the number of Americans in low-skilled jobs shrinks, employers depend on illegal immigrants for an estimated 400,000 low-wage jobs in need of filling each year. Illegal immigrants keep costs low and the economy humming, so employers have shown little enthusiasm for enforcing immigration laws in the past.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington think tank, estimates there now are 7.2 million illegal immigrants in the work force, including one in seven workers in construction. The odds of getting caught are slim, which reinforces the illegality. Most of the government’s budget for immigration enforcement is spent on the border and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. In 2004, Homeland Security began legal proceedings against only three employers.
Basic Pilot was designed to make it harder to employ an illegal worker by making it easier to verify his documents. The system compares a new hire’s information against the Social Security Administration’s database to confirm that the worker is authorized to work in the U.S.
If a worker’s name and Social Security number don’t match — a giveaway that the number is fake — the worker’s information is reported to Homeland Security where it is compared against immigration databases to see whether the worker is legally in the country. If the comparison shows what the government calls a “nonconfirmation,” the employer must fire the worker.
[Who’s Working]
Basic Pilot began in 1997 by enlisting employers in a few high-immigrant states and industries but has since been expanded nationwide. Data that once were telephoned in now are sent via the Internet. Still, only 5,479 of the country’s 8.5 million employers have signed on. Basic Pilot has just five employees, and its technology remains so elementary that some databases must be checked by hand.
“It has its imperfections,” concedes Emilio Gonzalez, director of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Service, who will be charged with implementing any worker-verification plan that Congress passes.
But perhaps Basic Pilot’s biggest flaw is that while it can detect a fake document by cross-checking databases, it can’t detect a stolen identity — when a new hire submits the name, address and Social Security number of a U.S. citizen or legal resident, for example. In 2004, only 208 of the 757,000 names submitted to Basic Pilot were what the government calls “employment unauthorized” — a strong hint that at least some workers had found their way to beat the system.
Moves in Congress to mandate use of Basic Pilot by all employers are sure to provoke heated debate. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, insist they support a verification program. But they complain about the unreliability of the government databases, as well as the cost and paperwork burden of checking out their employees through an expanded Basic Pilot system. The Government Accountability Office found that employers who now use Basic Pilot typically spent only $777 each on equipment and training.
A rough-draft Senate bill would require that an expanded Basic Pilot system screen all new hires and that the verification requirement be phased in, starting with the biggest employers. But a companion plan that was passed by the House of Representatives last year and that would have to be reconciled with the Senate, sends real shudders through the business community. It requires that employers — even families with household help, in some cases — screen all 150 million U.S. workers within six years, including those who have been on the payroll for decades.
Catching employers who fail to use Basic Pilot would be problematic — Homeland Security would likely conduct random audits, says a House staffer who worked on the bill. But fines would be stiff, topping out at $40,000 for each employee who isn’t verified.
The most contentious fight in Congress, though, may come over what documents a worker should produce. The Senate bill insists that worker verification won’t result in a national identity card, a red-flag issue for privacy advocates on both the political left and right.
Instead, it says, a worker-verification system would “build on” a 2005 law that requires states to issue driver’s licenses that include a photo, fingerprint, iris scan or other biometric identifier. But that law — aimed at foiling identity theft — already has civil-liberties and libertarian groups up in arms.
Because there is no secure ID in general use now, they say, any card that could be used both for identity and worker verification would morph into a national identity document. “This will become a de facto [national] card,” says Tom Sparapani, a privacy-rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Trying to foil illegal immigrations by making the Social Security card tamper-proof has problems too. The Social Security Administration estimated a few years ago that reissuing all 227 million account holders a secure card would cost up to $9.2 billion and, depending on the technology, take 73,000 work-years.
Write to June Kronholz at june.kronholz@wsj.com