Senate drafting U.S. system to verify worker documents

Employers who hire illegal immigrants would face stiff penalties

March 13, 2006|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee is poised to approve a new national database of names and Social Security numbers designed to stop illegal immigrants from using counterfeit documents.

As it wrestles with a far-reaching immigration reform bill, the committee is drafting a system for verifying Social Security numbers based on a 10-year-old pilot program. Legislation to be considered Wednesday and Thursday in the Judiciary Committee would change the types of documents that are accepted by employers and the way Social Security numbers are checked by the federal government.

If approved by Congress and signed by President Bush, the system could be up and running in five years, and employers caught hiring illegal immigrants would face stiff criminal and civil penalties.

Business and labor groups say they are concerned about the ability of a federal bureaucracy to handle the task of checking the status of millions of U.S. workers.

"I have very strong doubts the federal government is up to the task of being able to administer a program of this magnitude," said Eliseo Medina, international vice president of the Service Employees International Union. "I don't think the technology and the ability to enforce such a thing exists."

Powerful business groups, such as the National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said they doubt such a large-scale system could be run without inaccuracies.

"We don't want to be in a position, a few years down the line, of verifying our workers but when we do, the system gives us back bad data or the system is broken," said John Gay, a senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association.

At issue is what to do with the nation's nearly 12 million illegal immigrants. Congress is in the throes of a heated debate on immigration reform, and the Judiciary Committee is considering legislation by Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, that would create a guest worker program for illegal immigrants already in the country and for future immigrants.

The bill aims to curb illegal immigration by enhancing border security, while providing an avenue for legal employment for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

This explosive issue has divided Republicans in Congress. Some members are pushing for a focus on border security while other Republicans want a guest worker program, with division among them on whether that should include a pathway to citizenship.

A House immigration bill passed in December took an enforcement-only approach, authorizing a similar Social Security verification system that went a step further by requiring employers to check potential hires and current employees in six years.

Immigrant groups have criticized the worker program put forward by Specter because it does not allow illegal immigrants legally working to become citizens and does not substantially increase the number of work visas available.

While most of the attention is on the guest worker program, which is the first time Congress has attempted to change the legal status of illegal immigrants since 1986, business and labor groups are warily watching the Social Security verification system as it goes through the committee process.

Specter's proposal is facing a dozen amendments just on the system to check Social Security numbers. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, wants to safeguard worker data from identity thieves and allow workers to view and correct documents the Social Security Administration keeps in its database.

The pilot program, created in 1996, checks the Social Security numbers of 5,000 employers enrolled in the voluntary program. Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said about 90 percent of employees had their Social Security numbers check out.

Anti-immigrant groups said employers going unpunished for hiring illegal immigrants is the core issue in reforming the U.S. immigration system.

Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform said a system to check Social Security numbers and a way to penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants would go a long way toward discouraging illegal immigration.

Businesses that violate the regulations in Specter's bill would be prohibited from receiving federal contracts or grants for up to two years. Civil penalties would start at $10,000 per violation, and the criminal penalty is a $20,000 fine and up to 6 months in jail.

The bill would require the federal government to hire 3,000 investigators to enforce the law, but would not provide money to pay them.

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