Immigration Reforms Could Change Hiring Practices

June 1, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Continuing his push for a comprehensive immigration
reform bill, President Bush went to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today and
touted a new system that would enable employers to determine the legality of
those they were hiring.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I think this is sensible.
I think, if we want to enforce our laws, people ought to be required to check
to see whether or not names and numbers match.

JEFFREY BROWN: The provision, included in both the Senate
and House bills, is called the Employment Verification System.

The nation’s 6.5 million employers would be required to
check an electronic database to determine if future workers are here legally
and entitled to work. Those who knowingly employ illegal immigrants could face
fines as high as $20,000 per worker and jail time for repeat offenses.

During Senate debate on the plan, both sides of the aisle
stressed its significance.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: This is probably the single most
important thing that we can do, in terms of reducing the inflow of undocumented
workers: making sure that we can actually enforce, in a systematic way, rules
governing who gets hired.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: What we are trying to do is balance
the needs of workers and employers and the immigration enforcement.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been a crime to employ illegal workers
since the passage of the 1986 immigration law, but studies have shown that
penalties have not been widely enforced.

The new program is intended to replace one known as Basic
Pilot, an optional verification system in place since 1997. To date, only a
small fraction of the nation’s employers have participated.

Enforcing the law

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at some of these issues now with:Laura Reiff, chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, whichrepresents business interests in the debate over immigration reform; and KevinJernegan, a professor at George Washington University,who specializes in labor and immigration.

And welcome to both of you.

LAURA REIFF, Essential Worker Immigration Coalition: Thankyou.

KEVIN JERNEGAN, Professor, George Washington University: Thank youvery much, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Jernegan, starting with you, we hear bothsides saying that this is something of a linchpin in whatever happens. Why? Whyis it so important?

KEVIN JERNEGAN: Well, it's very difficult to enforce anysort of sanctions against employers unless you can establish that theyknowingly hired undocumented labor.

Going back to 1986 with the Immigration Reform and ControlAct, we'd identified that one of the major draws for undocumented immigrantswas, in fact, these abundant job offers that they had here that paidsubstantially better than they could make on the other side of the border.

So we wanted to go after these -- we reduced the number ofjobs that were available to them and hopefully stemmed the tide of illegalimmigration. And it seemed to have worked temporarily, in that, after 1986, wesaw that the apprehension of deportable aliens dropped by 50 percent during thefirst three years after that.

So there's strong evidence to suggest that the employer sanctionsagainst employers, in fact, helped. But pretty soon people figured out thatthere were ways around the system and that you could introduce fraudulentdocuments, for instance.

There was very little enforcement. The number of actualinvestigations of employers and penalties assessed against them was veryminimal. And so, pretty soon, you found that the number of undocumented startedto go up again.

But, basically, in order for any of the employer sanctionsto be effective, you have to have a reliable way of knowing who is and who isnot lawfully present. And, right now, if you look at someone who's got a bogusidentity card, a stolen identity, how can you really establish that thatemployer really knowingly hired someone who was lawfully present?

Controlling the flow

JEFFREY BROWN: What is your sense of why things have notworked? We've said now several times the law is that you cannot hire illegalworkers. Why hasn't it worked?

LAURA REIFF: Well, in 1986 -- the true reason why it hasn'tworked is, in 1986, we only fixed half of the problem. We had undocumentedworkers here who needed to have some kind of stability in their life, and wehave the act that changed their status to permanent residents.

What we didn't do was provide a mechanism for allowingworkers to come into this country when we couldn't find U.S. workers, and that's what youhear the president saying now, willing workers for willing employers.

We didn't have a spigot, a valve to have those workers comeinto this country. So what happened was we had an economic boom here andemployers had job openings, couldn't find U.S. workers, and we've got 500,000undocumented workers coming into this country now illegally.

So we had a problem with that system. And when those workerscome into the country, they have the fraudulent documents, like Kevin said. Andso employers, when they're looking at the documents, which we're required to dounder the Employment Eligibility Verification System, can't look beyond thosedocuments.

If they look like on their face they're valid documents, wehave to accept them. We do accept them; we do our compliance, and they're here.They're working. So we have a severely broken system which started in 1986.

JEFFREY BROWN: So is it fair to say now that there is aconsensus on having some kind of verification program, but there is problemswith the details?

KEVIN JERNEGAN: Yes, I think that's a safe assessment. Therecertainly is a broad consensus that this has to happen.

If we're going to have any sort of enforcement, we need tobe able to identify which employers are making good-faith efforts to complywith the law and which ones are, in fact, willfully non-complying.

And so you get down to the fine points of, you know, how canyou make this happen? And the existing Basic Pilot system that's been triedover the last 10 years here seems to work fairly effectively, by providing adatabase that allows for external verification of a person's work authorizationand eligibility used in primarily the Social Security number, but also usingIRS records and Department of Homeland Security records.

You know, there's still some bugs in the system. The systemworks very, very well for U.S. citizens who have been in the system sincechildhood. We've all had Social Security numbers, and so we get very high ratesof approval for U.S. citizens.

The problem tends to come up more with people who are newlyarrived but quite probably or possibly legally, you know, present immigrantsand who have not been in the system very long.

They may have some discrepancies in their records related todifferent spellings of names, you know, juxtaposed dates of birth. Maybe theyuse a day-month format for birth instead of a month-day format. These sorts oflittle things can throw off the computer verification of that, resulting indelays.

What happens when an employer gets what's called a tentativenon-confirmation from the system, do they, in fact, know to wait and actuallygive the person advice on how to appeal that, or provide additionalinformation, or wait for a final confirmation, you know, or do they simply passthat person over and move onto the next person whose employment eligibility ismore readily verifiable?

Protecting boths sides

JEFFREY BROWN: And from the business side, what are theconcerns? There are concerns that have been raised with this new potentialprovision.

LAURA REIFF: Yes. Actually, the business community wouldprefer not to be the document police. We believe it's within the purview of thegovernment to have to check employment eligibility and make sure that workersthat come into this country actually have the documents and the proper workauthorization. Employers shouldn't have to bear that burden.


LAURA REIFF: Because it's the government's job to make surethat our borders are secure and that, when employees or when workers comeacross the border, they have the proper documentation.

However, we understand post-9/11 that, you know, we'rewilling to chip if and do our part, but we need a system. I guess what I'msaying is we've accepted the fact that we need to have an employmenteligibility and verification system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Something's going to happen?

LAURA REIFF: It's going to happen; it's already happening. Butwe need a system that is foolproof, it's fail-safe, that it is reliable and itprovides blanket protection from liability for employers when we do what we'reasked to do.

We need something that's fast, that's efficient. And what Kevinhas just described here is a system right now that can take -- you know, it cantake up to two months to get a Social Security number for somebody.

And if you're relying on the current Basic Pilot program,you're not going to be able to put somebody on the payroll for two months,because they don't have a Social Security number, so there are a lot of thingsthat need to be worked out in order to make this system really smooth-sailingfor employers.

We're worried that we're going to -- if we have one of thesystems that's actually been proposed, that we're going to end up turning downU.S. workers, which nobody wants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you raised some of the civil libertarianconcerns over this, about privacy, about potential discrimination. Are thereprotections being debated now or built into the bills?

KEVIN JERNEGAN: There are. It's a tricky situation. You haveto find a balance, and that one of the great problems from a point of view ofenforcement is right now, with the existing I-9 process, there are a widevariety of documents that a person can submit in order to establish theiridentity and employment eligibility.

That means that a prospective employer has to be able toidentify all of these documents and know which ones are real and which onesaren't. That's kind of a heavy burden to put on an employer.

So there's a strong desire to try and consolidate, you know,the list of documents down to one standard I.D. that, you know, everyone canrecognize, but then you get into issues like, you know, a national I.D. card. And,you know, is that going to come with privacy issues that we should be concernedabout?

You know, oftentimes, people who are, in fact, lawfullypresent may not have those kinds of documents. For instance, where you talkabout -- some of the compromises that were discussed were requiring a Real I.D.Act-compliant identity documents. These identity documents are not yetavailable, will not be for quite some time.

Costs of a new system

JEFFREY BROWN: You're both raising technical issues, and Iguess there must be a cost issue, as well. What is at stake here? What are thecosts, and is there any evidence that people are ready to bear it?

LAURA REIFF: Well, you know, one of the proposals was toactually have employers bear the burden of verifying the employment eligibilityof these workers, and that's a, you know, straight-out hard cost to employers.

But there's also a cost of having to implement a new system,obtain equipment. A lot of our employers are small businesses. I'm an employer.I employ people to work in my home.

What am I going to have to do to comply with this? What aresmall businesses going to have to do? So there are those kinds of costs.

And then, with some of the proposals that have requiredre-verification of the entire workforce, think about the administrative and thehuman resource costs of going back, and getting these folks in, and then thelogistics of just dealing with re-verification.

So there are all kinds of costs that are incurred in dealingwith this system and, frankly, employers don't want to have to bear the bruntof that.

JEFFREY BROWN: We just have a few seconds left. What are theprospects here? We've said everybody wants it, but there's all kinds of issuesyou've just brought out. What are the prospects?

KEVIN JERNEGAN: Well, that's the $50,000 question, isn't it?I think that -- I mean, realistically everyone agrees that this is sort of anecessary thing that has to happen, given the current, you know, time frame,given the current zeitgeist.

You know, people are concerned about illegal immigration. Weneed do something about it, so this is probably going to happen. The pointsthat are left are relatively minor ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Kevin Jernegan, Laura Reiff, thank youboth very much.

KEVIN JERNEGAN: Thank you, Jeff.

LAURA REIFF: Thanks, Jeff.