Posted on September 21, 2005

Dear Job Candidate: Now We Can Check Your Immigration Status

Rockford Register-Star (Il.), Sept. 19

LOS ANGELES — Many Americans focus on the border when they consider the fight against illegal immigration. But some experts say the real battle should be in the workplace to stop the hiring of people without work visas.

Simple enough in theory, but how can you tell who’s an illegal immigrant?

Many companies now do little more than eyeball documents, saying they lack the expertise and resources to go any further — and they seldom face federal sanctions.

But across the country, a small group of businesses is quietly testing a Department of Homeland Security program that can check immigration status with a few clicks on the Internet. The program is likely to be at the heart of any federal immigration reform, even as critics say it needs improvement.

“It’s not a question of ‘can we fix this?’ It’s ‘when and how?’” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank who specializes in immigration.

Many businesses, however, oppose making the program mandatory because it would stop them from hiring illegal workers and force them to pay higher wages, said Maria Echeveste, an immigration expert and political consultant who worked as a deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

“I see this as a battle over whether we are going to be hypocrites or not,” she said. “If we’re not ready to give up cheap labor, then we should shut up about illegal immigrants.”

Under the Basic Pilot Program, employers enter a person’s name, birth date and other data on a Web site. The information is then run through databases maintained by the Social Security Administration and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Employers never learn whether the individual might be in the country illegally. They simply get a “yes” or “no” on the person’s work status. Applicants can appeal if they disagree with the results.

The program doesn’t include fingerprint or other biometric checks to determine whether applicants are using someone else’s Social Security number or name. Ideally, the checks would eventually include a photo identification card supplied by Social Security. But the agency has estimated the cost of producing such cards at $4 billion.