Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 12, 2006

Worksite employee verification: the information gap

Filed under: Border Security,Technology for HLS — by Christian Beckner on April 12, 2006

The AP published an interesting story on Tuesday on the need for a database system for employers to verify peoples’ legal work status, describing the challenges associated with creating such a system and noting pilot project activity that is underway on this topic:

At the heart of any immigration bill that makes it through the heated congressional debates is likely to be a computerized system that could help employers determine instantly whether someone can legally work in this country.

A voluntary version of the Internet-based system has been up and running on an experimental basis since 1996 and now includes more than 5,000 companies nationwide. Democrats and Republicans alike – including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. – have included expanded versions in every bill now under serious consideration.

President Bush’s budget request calls for adding $115 million to the program’s current budget of $20 million to make it mandatory across the country. (The spending also includes a system that will eventually check the immigration status of applicants for driver’s licenses and other benefits.)

Immigration expert Kevin Jernegan, who wrote a report last year on the pilot program for the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, called such a system central to immigration reform. Under a 1986 federal law, employers can be punished for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, but very few are penalized.

“Right now there’s a loophole, because you have to show that employers knowingly hired an illegal worker, and how do you prove that without a reliable system?” Jernegan said.

The MPI report by Jernegan mentioned in the story is available at this link. Overall, I don’t think it will be rocket science to build out a system like this, but it’s something that could get off course without diligent, senior-level attention. The article also mentions that privacy issues have sidetracked previous attempts to develop a comprehensive worksite enforcement system. But in this climate I don’t think that these issues will still be salient, and the government’s right to enforce existing laws will outweigh potential privacy impacts in most peoples’ minds.

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