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Help for hiring legal immigrants

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted October 13, 2003

Suppose the government puts in place laws but then makes it virtually impossible for employers to comply with them.

That is exactly the case when employers are hiring immigrants.

In 1986, Congress enacted, and Ronald Reagan signed into law, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Furthermore, employers are required to check the identity and the work eligibility of their new hires.

In reality, all that means is ascertaining if the documents presented by the new hire appear to be legitimate. Logic would dictate that an employer should be able to check the job applicant's documentation before making a hiring decision; immigration law prevents that.

An illegal immigrant can offer a fraudulent or fictionalized Social Security number and it may be a year before the Social Security Administration will contact the employer to notify him that the employee has pulled a fast one. The sophistication of counterfeiters in producing drivers licenses, Social Security cards and alien registration cards makes it very difficult for employers to know whether the documents presented by a potential new hire are genuine.

There are concerns that an employer who displays recalcitrance at accepting documents that he thinks are false only to be proven wrong could find himself facing charges of having been discriminatory based on an individual's national origin or citizenship status.

The current system, with its slowness and inefficiency, is simply not conducive to enforcing our country's immigration laws, much less to helping employers determine whether their hires are truly legal.

If we are really serious about enforcing the immigration laws we have on the books, then we must provide the means for employers to quickly determine the validity of the documents with which they are presented.

This week, the House will be considering whether or not to expand a pilot program started by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. The voluntary system instituted by that law allowed employers in six states to quickly check the validity of Social Security and INS records presented by new hires to assure they are indeed legal aliens. Most employers have a considerable wait before learning that the Social Security numbers used by their employees are fraudulent; usually it will be a year or more before the Social Security Administration notifies them. Close to 12,000 worksites in California, Florida, Illinois, Nebraska, New York, and Texas are participating in the pilot program.

The way the pilot program works is simple and reflects plain common sense.

Once a job applicant decides to accept a job offer, he will need to show his documents to the employer. Then, the employer has three days to confirm the information given to him. If the new hire claims citizenship status, the employer can check his Social Security number. Non-citizens would have their INS-issued information and Social Security number checked, too.

The Social Security Administration and INS are expected to notify the employer quickly -- within three days -- whether the information is valid.

New hires can contest a nonconfirmation. If that process fails, the employer has the option of either dismissing the applicant or else proving to the INS why the new hire is eligible. Failure to prove the employee's legitimate status would open the employer up to legal sanctions.

The information received by the employer from the government is only eligible for use in confirming the validity of the documents and not to be used for any other purpose.

When INS commissioned a study of the pilot program in its early years, the study, conducted by Temple University's Institute for Survey Research, found "an overwhelming majority of employers participating in the basic pilot program to be an effective and reliable tool for employment verification." Over eighty percent of employers found that their participation in the pilot program provided greater certainty regarding work authorization. Nearly two-thirds of participating employers agreed that the program led to a decrease in unauthorized workers applying for jobs.

Forty-five percent of employers were more willing to hire immigrants due to their participation in the pilot program.

Uncontrolled immigration represents an economic problem for our country as illegal immigrants can command costly services, draining away tax dollars paid by citizens and legal immigrants. The very presence of millions of illegal aliens in our country demonstrates a lack of respect for our country's laws and to those legal immigrants who have played by the rules to come here. Furthermore, the influx of illegal immigrants demonstrates a national security problem too in that our nation is proven unable to control our own borders.

We all know that illegal aliens come here for jobs, so the only way to deter them from coming -- and staying -- is to assure that they do not have unchecked access to jobs the law prohibits them from having. That requires exactly this type of verification system.

Critics have charged that making this voluntary verification program more widely accessible will lead to a national ID program. That's overstated. All that is being checked is the information from the legally appropriate agencies. There's no mixing and matching of data. The voluntary verification system was set up to rely on existing databases, not to create a new one or to link the SSA and INS databases.

Furthermore, the voluntary verification program in its expanded national form will be up for renewal in five years. If there is a hint of it leading to the establishment of a national ID card, then there will be plenty of people on all sides of the spectrum who will raise a ruckus. Right now, though, voluntary employment verification is a benefit that should be made available to more employers.

If America is to remain the land of opportunity, our country must remain open to newcomers from foreign lands who seek to make honest and meaningful contributions to our society. Indeed, we would not be as successful a country today if not for the benefits brought to our country by millions of immigrants who went on to assimilate, become citizens and to prosper from the freedom and opportunity that we offer.

This system is hardly a cure-all for what ails our immigration system. But it makes sense and deserves to be made available on a voluntary basis to other employers across the nation. Immigration laws are enacted for good reasons and they must be enforced. If we expect American employers to abide by those laws, we need to provide the quickest and most efficient means to do so.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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