Posted on September 22, 2004

Little-Used Program Could Affect Immigration

Richard Ruelas, Arizona Republic (Phoenix), Sept. 20

The answer is not an initiative. The answer is not a wall on the border. The answer to illegal immigration is on the 19th floor of a midtown Phoenix high-rise, sitting on a mahogany-colored desk in the human resources division of Bar-S Foods Co. It’s a computer that immediately checks an employee’s Social Security number to see if it comes back as valid.

Karen Reo, a personnel manager, reached behind the computer to jiggle a phone line. The modem was being fussy. “Sorry, this happens all the time,” she said. It’s one of the few problems reported by users of the Basic Pilot program, and it will be largely remedied when the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau makes the system accessible through a secure Web site.

Bar-S Foods, purveyors of jumbo franks and sliced ham, is one of a handful of companies to sign up for the voluntary program that checks Social Security numbers against employee names. Bar-S uses its system at its headquarters in Phoenix, but it gets more of a workout at its processing plants in Oklahoma.

It is a simple solution, one that could put a dent in the problem of illegal immigration. But right now, it’s also ineffective. That’s because although it worked well in years-long pilot programs, and will be available nationwide on Oct. 1, it is voluntary. Efforts to make it mandatory have stalled in Congress. There are several industries that wouldn’t want an efficient system to weed out illegal workers.

“My feeling is that probably a lot of people don’t want to use it,” said Martin Thompson, vice president of human resources at Bar-S. “They don’t want to necessarily know.”

Bar-S adopted the system for business reasons, Thompson said. It halts time-consuming audits from immigration authorities and makes sure a surprise raid doesn’t cripple a plant. Bar-S had troubles in the 1980s with immigration raids, Thompson said, although enforcement nationwide has been lax for the past several years.

Still, the corporation felt a “civic responsibility” to take all available steps to ensure it hires legal workers, Thompson said. “We stay within the law and can hold our heads up high to everybody at any time.”

The system is designed to prevent the use of fake Social Security numbers, which are widely available on the black market and are one of the most frequent methods used by undocumented immigrants to get work. So long as the Social Security card looks somewhat legitimate and it matches the also-fake driver’s license, an employer has met all legal obligations. The numbers are recorded on the I-9 form and sent off to Washington, where they rarely get scrutinized.

Under Basic Pilot, all new employees get checked. The system sees if the Social Security number they provide matches their name. When the system is up, Reo said, the response is instant. She pointed to the monitor where a box would pop up saying, “employee authorized.” If it comes back with a problem, the employee has 10 days to get it resolved before the company is allowed to dismiss them. For some employees, it’s something as simple as a marital name change that was never reported, something easily solved. Other employees, the ones here illegally it’s presumed, choose not to fight. “We never see them again,” Reo said.

The system is not foolproof. If someone were to completely steal someone’s identity, that is, pass himself or herself off as someone else, complete with that person’s Social Security number, the Basic Pilot program wouldn’t catch it. But the test runs of the program show that it does stop a lot of employees who otherwise would be hired.

There are concerns about security and whether employers follow all policies. But those concerns pale in comparison to the current system, which has immigrants exploited on the job, and others left to die in the Sonoran desert.

When Bar-S began using the program in 1998, about 30 percent of new employees had a mismatch with the federal database. “We took out a lot of people,” Thompson said. Now the rate is about 10 or 15 percent. He figured that word got out that Bar-S was checking Social Security numbers. He also figured that those illegal employees are now being hired by Bar-S competitors, putting the company at a disadvantage.

“In our industry, we are notorious for that,” he said, “and there is a labor shortage out there.”

Because of that labor shortage Bar-S has needed to retain its employees. Wages are about the same as other meat processors, Thompson said, but the benefits package has improved. Morale has improved.

“All that community tension (over immigration) that spills over into the workplace,” said Reo. “Now there’s less of that.”

Morale has also improved in Clinton, Lawton, Altus and Elk City, the small Oklahoma cities where Bar-S has factories. “Those communities are sensitive to the costs of illegal immigration,” Thompson said.

The Basic Pilot program could put a dent in illegal immigration by discouraging illegal hiring. But don’t look for it to be expanded any time soon. A proposed law, co-sponsored by Arizona Congressmen Trent Franks and John Shadegg, that would require companies receiving federal contracts to use the Basic Pilot program hasn’t had a hearing yet. State lawmakers could introduce a similar bill in Arizona. But the state lawmakers most motivated against illegal immigration are distracted by flawed measures such as Protect Arizona Now, which even its backers admit does nothing to stop the flow of people across the border.

For now, Basic Pilot remains voluntary and ineffective. Only about 700 companies nationwide use it, including 25 in Phoenix. Those companies can be fairly sure their new employees are here legally.

They can also be certain that there are plenty of businesses around to hire the ones here illegally.