Employee verification system would affect all workers, privacy experts
Remember the Department of Homeland Security's "no-fly'' lists
that erratically flagged 3-year-old children and dozens of men named David Nelson
as terrorists seeking to board commercial airplanes?
Well, now privacy experts are warning America to prepare for the "no-work''
As Congress debates immigration reform, experts say a little-discussed aspect
of the bill, mandatory employee eligibility verification, is likely to have
a colossal impact on the lives of every person in the U.S. labor market -- citizen
and foreigner alike.
"Everyone who wants to work will feel this provision,'' said Tim Sparapani,
legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "People are just
beginning to understand the implications of it, and they're big.''
The need for a nationwide system through which employers can verify whether
potential workers are citizens or legal residents has been the one element of
the pending immigration reform upon which Republicans and Democrats have largely
But privacy advocates say the rush to mandate widespread eligibility checks
is being done with little understanding of the technical snafus that could wrongly
put thousands of people out of work each year while leading to rampant discrimination.
And, they warn, the government may also begin to compile new and vast stores
of knowledge on every employable man, woman and child.
Department of Homeland Security officials and advocates of the employer verification
system say privacy activists are fanning overblown fears.
No personal information is stored or tracked, they maintain, and the program
is devised to protect employees from being left jobless while waiting for a
green light from the system.
Currently that system is called the Basic Pilot Program, and it is voluntary.
About 6,000 participating employers use it annually to electronically check
workers' I-9 forms against Social Security and visa info.
Should the system go national, it will have to accommodate a U.S. work force
of about 144 million people.
About 57 million people, according to the Department of Labor, take new jobs
each year, 13.4 million in Western states alone.
Mark Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said
most Americans wrongly think they will be exempt from verification.
"Generally speaking, people who aren't in the immigrant community assume
it won't affect them. But for the system to work, it has to encompass the entire
American work force,'' he said.
The bills, he said, "put the Social Security Administration and the Department
of Homeland Security in the middle of every employment decision in the United
Under the Senate bill, employers would be required to use the system to check
every new employee, while the House requires employers to check current workers
as well as prospective ones.
"This is many orders of magnitude greater than what currently exists,''
Sparapani said. "As a computer network problem, that's a massive undertaking.''
Chris Bentley, spokesman for the U.S. Department Citizenship and Immigration,
which oversees the program, said he is confident the Basic Pilot Program could
rapidly expand if required.
"Absolutely,'' he said.
Bentley noted that the system is not a database that needs to be created, but
rather an interface that can access information from the Social Security Administration
and USCIS records.
Ramping up the system, then, would require money and resources to accommodate
the heavy influx of new users.
Currently, when employers enter a workers' Social Security or visa number along
with other identifiers such as birth date, the system either confirms an employee's
eligibility or issues what is called a "tentative non-confirmation.''
Employers are required to notify workers, who then have 10 days to contest
During that time, employers are prohibited from firing, suspending or docking
pay. Bentley also noted that employees must already be hired and working before
the verification can be done, so that employees are not waiting on the wheels
of bureaucracy to turn in order to feed their families.
"No one is in a holding pattern here,'' he said.
But reality does not always conform to law.
According to the UCSIS's own 2002 study, employers do use the pilot system
to screen applicants. And when they receive a tentative non-confirmation, "job
applicants are unlikely to be notified,'' the study found.
Moreover, 67 percent of employees who contested a non-confirmation reported
being suspended, docked pay or having their job training delayed while they
sorted out their records.
A 2004 agency report found that erroneous non-confirmations for foreign born
workers was "unacceptably high'' and "higher than desirable'' for
The errors, it found, are largely the result of data entry mistakes and accuracy
problems with either the Social Security or USCIS databases.
"This creates burdens for employees and employers, increased verification
costs for the government and led to unintentional discrimination against foreign-born
persons,'' the study found.
These days the USCIS pegs the overall error rate as low as 1.4 percent.
But extrapolated to 54 million workers in a mandatory national system, and
that could result in more than 750,000 people each year wrongly told they aren't
eligible to work.
Sparapani likened it to DHS's no-fly list, which led to dozens of men named
David Nelson being detained at airports because one man named David Nelson apparently
was listed as a potential terrorist.
"I've called this system the ‘no-work list,''' Sparapani said.
"Pick your common surname. It's a nightmare for the system. And imagine
not being able to work and provide for your family,'' he said.
While the Senate bill provides employees with broader ability to contest and
appeal their finding, the House version does not.
But accuracy could have its dangers as well.
The more information the government collects in the name of preserving accuracy
and preventing identity fraud, the more information the government has on all
of us, experts point out.
"It's the government creating another system of identification'' Rotenberg
While DHS officials maintained that no employment data is tracked or stored,
Rotenberg and others predicted it someday would be. And without privacy restrictions
on how the information is used, they warned, numerous agencies could potentially
tap into the data at any time.
Ultimately, though, immigration experts said the employer verification program,
even with its faults, is the best way to block illegal immigration.
"There are legitimate concerns in terms of privacy and the rights of individuals
to access and correct their records,'' said Deborah Meyers, a senior policy
expert at the Migration Policy Institute.
But, she said, "ultimately, from an immigration perspective, only an employer
verification system has the potential to reduce illegal immigration to the United
States, because ultimately it's the job magnet that draws illegals to the U.S.
"The deterrent has to be the inability to get a job,'' she said.
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