The no-fee service checks Social Security numbers but is rarely used. Soon, businesses may be required to verify every employee.
In 10 seconds, any U.S. employer voluntarily can check the
immigration status of workers using a free Web-based government
screening system that’s been available since 2004.
This system, which checks names and Social Security numbers against
federal records, weeds out hundreds of unauthorized workers, said
Brian Burke, a Denver-based manager for American Linen Supply Co.,
whose 400 local employees come mostly from Mexico.
“We want to work within the law. We’re trying to be good
citizens,” Burke said.
But most employers decline to use the system.
Congress is weighing whether to require that they do so. While
Monday’s planned street rallies and scuffles over border security
draw headlines, the role of employers hiring millions of
undocumented workers increasingly drives the behind-the-scenes
battle over record-high illegal immigration.
Only 6,191 out of the nation’s
8 million employers screen new hires using the system, according to
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services records.
In the Denver area, only 35 employers participate. Houston has 104,
Los Angeles 63, New York 50, Chicago 41.
Participation inched up a bit recently – from 5,855 nationwide a
month ago – amid the intense debate.
Yet the fraction of employers using the “Basic Pilot” system –
launched in 1996 and made available nationwide in 2004 – is
“Why don’t more participate?” said Chris Bentley, spokesman for
Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland
Security. “Employers can get answers on whether employees are
eligible to work in 8 to 10 seconds,” and an appeals process lets
workers correct errors within a week, Bentley said. The system is
“almost infallible because there is that ability to challenge
Authorities notified all employers through official bulletins, and
publicity efforts include government “business liaison” officers
available to guide employers through registering online and then
using a password to enter a Homeland Security website and submit
names, Social Security numbers and other basic data from new
Since 1986, it’s been illegal to “knowingly” hire unauthorized
workers. But fake documents and lax enforcement have led to
widespread reliance on unauthorized workers, with an estimated 12
million people in the country illegally – prompting a popular
Immigration analysts say blocking employment for illegal immigrants
is fundamental in fixing what all sides see as a broken system.
Senate and House lawmakers are hashing out details of legislation
that would require companies to confirm that all workers they hire
are in the country legally. Homeland Security officials already
have budgeted $110 million for running “Basic Pilot” on a
Even political leaders who favor programs to bring in more foreign
workers support the effort to hold employers accountable.
“If we get a fair and appropriate guest-worker system, that has to
go with accountability in the private sector,” Denver Mayor John
Hickenlooper said. “Businesses have to make sure people they hire
have proper identification.”
Today’s low participation in voluntary screening is proof, some
activists contend, that employers prefer to avoid responsibility
for hiring illegal workers.
“Cheap labor is economic cocaine. People get addicted to it,”
said former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, a leading immigration
hard-liner. “Employers are happy to have an excuse to wink at the
law – and are taking advantage of that.”
Lobbyists for big business last week pressed for a gradual phase-in
of any required screening, and modifications.
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report charges that 20 percent of Basic
Pilot’s initial readings are false. And challenging errors is a
hassle, said Angelo Amador, immigration policy director for the
“We have no problem with electronic employee verification. But we
want to make sure it works before it’s mandatory,” Amador said.
The National Federation of Independent Business surveyed its
600,000 small-business members and found they “are somewhat
divided,” spokeswoman Melissa Sharp said. “We haven’t taken a
Major employers in Colorado were similarly noncommittal. Instead of
using the government system, Qwest Communications relies on a
contractor to handle hiring. Qwest won’t comment on whether the
company has violated immigration laws, spokesman Bob Toevs said.
Construction companies and the Colorado Association of Homebuilders
declined to comment, referring queries to national affiliates.
National Association of Homebuilders lobbyist Jenna Hamilton,
“very involved with current drafts of Senate legislation,” called
for a multiyear phase-in of any requirement, with big companies
leading the way, as well as modifications so that employers could
verify worker status using cellphones.
Few if any Colorado landscapers use the system to check worker
status voluntarily, “but if legislation passes mandating
verification or screening, our industry will comply,” said Kristen
Fefes, director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of
Colorado. “Any system put in place will need to be foolproof.”
Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Tamra Ward said
companies may not know about the system.
“Perhaps marketing it in a larger way would be a first step before
creating some mandated option,” Ward said.
At Homeland Security, verification chief Gerri Ratcliff said
today’s system “works for the employers participating in it, and
their numbers are growing every day.”
Once worker-screening is required, she said, “employers who have
avoided being in Basic Pilot because they didn’t want to know about
the legal status of their employees won’t be able to anymore.”
Some employers feel the heat from a crackdown last week, but also fear suits from fired workers.
Last week’s announcement by federal authorities of an aggressive
crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants – after years of lax
enforcement – has left employers like Chris Walter perplexed.
Walter’s company, TriStar Drywall, depends heavily on Mexican
immigrants to install walls in homes around Denver. When hiring,
“we do check two forms of ID,” said Walter, TriStar’s vice
Then, if the Social Security Administration sends a letter
indicating an employee has submitted an invalid number, Walter
orders that worker to call the authorities and straighten it out.
That’s all the law requires of employers. But Walter still feels
“like the microscope is definitely out. We do try to go exactly by
the letter of the law, but we are concerned that the law doesn’t
seem to be very clear.”
Federal officials got employers’ attention Thursday when they
announced the roundup of nearly 1,200 workers for palletmaker IFCO
Systems in 26 states, including 38 at a Commerce City site, for
alleged immigration violations. Seven company managers were
arrested, accused of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants, and
could face prison terms. And more raids could be coming. Federal
agents “have several things we are working on in the Denver
area,” said Jeff Copp, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement
“Companies need to take a hard look at what they are doing. If
they are doing something illegal, they ought to reassess what they
are gaining,” he said. But only employers who “knowingly” hire
illegal immigrants are at fault, federal officials say.
And Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s declaration
Thursday that “the status quo has changed” probably won’t impede
most employers, said Angelo Amador, immigration policy director for
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. “It depends on how far
they go. Nobody is talking about going after the 12 million”
illegal immigrants, Amador said.
Behind the scenes in Congress, Amador and others opposed recent
efforts by some lawmakers to lower the legal standard so that
employers who “negligently” hire illegal workers could be
The promised federal crackdown “shows the laws that are already in
place are good enough to go after the people who are really trying
to circumvent the law,” Amador said.
But some are pressing for stricter laws, including creation of a
fraud-proof work ID and verification system so that employers can
be required to make sure workers they hire are in the country
legally. Border Patrol union president T.J. Bonner, representing
about 10,500 frontline federal agents, dismissed the crackdown as
political posturing intended to defuse reform.
Homeland Security officials “are trying to convince Congress the
existing laws are adequate,” Bonner said, adding that the
crackdown “is not going to have any kind of deterrent effect on
the hundreds of thousands of employers out there employing illegal
Construction and landscaping companies have been identified in
recent studies as relying heavily on illegal immigrant workers.
Trade group officials declined to comment on federal enforcement
“We absolutely advise our members to follow the law all the
time,” Colorado Association of Homebuilders spokeswoman Amy Mayhew
said. “We expect our members are out there being outstanding
An illegal worker can fool an employer without much trouble,
Associated Landscape Contractors director Kristen Fefes said.
“There are some very good documents out there that look completely
legitimate,” she said. And when Social Security officials send
letters notifying employers that a worker’s number is invalid,
employers also are warned not to dismiss them based on that
Often, Fefes said, letters arrive up to three years late and are
based on inaccurate information.
At TriStar Drywall, Walker voiced similar concerns. “I want to
comply, but you are exposing yourself to possible litigation. There
are guys out there who will file charges against you for
The whole system needs to be fixed, said Chris Thomas, a Denver
attorney who represents employers. “Employers find themselves in
this wild conundrum,” he said. “They worry, ‘If we don’t go far
enough, we’re going to find ourselves on the wrong side of Homeland
Security. If we go too far (in firing workers), we may find
ourselves on the wrong side of Social Security.”‘
Under the federal crackdown, agents will focus on employers showing
“total disregard for immigration law,” said Copp, the ICE special
agent. “But if we get workable information … on just about any
company in the city or in our four-state area, we’d be able to work
those cases, too.”
Immigration battle switches gears, feds say
1,187 ARRESTS MADE
The raids on IFCO Systems, including a local facility, may signal a
tough new era for employers.
Federal agents raided a Colorado work yard and arrested 38 Mexican
men – and 1,149 others nationwide – launching what the government
cast as an aggressive campaign against employers who hire illegal
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday declared:
“Employers and workers alike should be on notice that the status
quo has changed.”
After years of lax work-site enforcement, the immigration sting
targeting pallet-supply company IFCO Systems in 26 states caught
business leaders by surprise. Seven company managers also were
arrested on charges of conspiring to harbor illegal immigrants.
Federal immigration chiefs rolled out plans for sustained work-site
and other “interior” immigration enforcement based on what they
say will be a fundamentally different approach. Instead of trying
just to fine employers caught hiring illegal workers, they’ll put
them in jail.
“Employers who were fined in the past felt it was little more than
a nuisance. When they’re looking at criminal prosecutions, they’re
going to take that a little more seriously,” said Jeff Copp, a
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent. Copp
oversaw Wednesday’s raid at IFCO’s yard at 5699 Dexter St. in
Expect “several other cases in Denver” soon, Copp said.
“We know that companies constantly exploit illegal immigrants.
They know they are not going to go to law enforcement to report
them. … If they are going to run a business, they should do it
The strategy Chertoff unveiled Thursday calls for 171 more
work-site enforcement agents nationwide – and 20 more teams to
track down and deport immigrants who commit crimes and the 590,000
immigrants ignoring orders to leave the country.
Immigration experts for years have been saying that effective
work-site enforcement – removing the job magnet that lures growing
numbers of foreign workers illegally into the United States – is
essential for fixing the nation’s broken immigration system.
New approach welcomed
For years, government enforcers have downplayed this mission, often
citing insufficient resources. The number of employers fined
decreased from hundreds a year in the 1990s to a handful last
The federal raids Wednesday and Thursday “demonstrated that this
department has no patience for employers who tolerate or perpetuate
a shadow economy,” Chertoff said in Washington. “We intend to
find employers who knowingly or recklessly hire unauthorized
workers, and we will use every authority within our power to shut
down businesses that exploit an illegal workforce to turn a
Congressional hard-liners welcomed the new approach.
“After years of calls, letters and protests, (homeland security)
leadership finally might be getting the message: Enforce the law,”
said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., leader of the House immigration
“If this approach continues, the federal government might be on
its way to actually getting at the heart of the illegal-immigration
problem for the first time in memory,” he said.
Business leaders weighed how best to respond. The U.S. Chamber of
Commerce and other groups have lobbied against legislative efforts
to require employers to verify the immigration status of workers.
Current law lets employers off the hook if they make a good-faith
effort to check documents. Prosecutors must prove they knowingly
hired illegal immigrants.
“The federal government should enforce the laws that are on the
books,” Denver Chamber of Commerce vice president Tamra Ward said.
But “business should not be required to be ICE,” she said.
Some immigration activists, on both sides of a fervent popular
debate that has had millions protesting on city streets, said they
suspected a publicity stunt.
Homeland security chiefs launched the crackdown as the . Senate
prepares to resume debate next week on how to fix the immigration
House legislation passed last year included provisions to curb
hiring of illegal immigrants. It would increase fines on employers
who break the law and encourage creation of a national system for
electronically verifying worker status.
The Senate has considered legislation that would legalize most of
the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and set up a visa
program for unskilled workers to enter legally to work.
Bid for more funding?
Most likely, homeland security officials are acting partly in an
effort to win more money from Congress, said Doris Meissner, chief
of immigration enforcement under President Clinton from 1993 to
2000 and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in
“They’re trying to demonstrate that they are a good investment,”
said Meissner, who lauded the new approach.
“Money spent on workplace enforcement is a far better investment
than fences at the border,” she said. “But it is ultimately not
going to go anywhere if there isn’t also legislation that requires
verification (of worker-immigration status) and gives employers a way to comply with the law.”
A federal affidavit alleges that more than half the U.S. employees
of IFCO Systems, a Netherlands-based multinational with North
American headquarters in Houston, had improper Social Security
It alleges company officials transported illegal immigrants to and
from work, paid rent for housing illegal workers and deducted money
from their monthly paychecks to cover expenses.
Senior IFCO officials said they are cooperating fully with
“We have no comment,” said a woman behind glass doors at the
Commerce City work yard.
Outside, trucks came and went through dust Thursday while workers
behind fences still toiled loading and unloading pallets. A federal
agent looked on.
North American headquarters: Houston
Sales (2004): $495.9 million worldwide, $280.7 million in U.S.
Business: Makes pallets, containers, crates and packaging;
Territory: North and South America, Europe, Africa and Asia
Sources: Hoover’s Company Records & Internet sources
Compiled by Barry Osborne, Denver Post Research Library
Key points of the immigration-enforcement program
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it is shifting its
attention toward employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants,
bringing criminal charges and seizing assets rather than relying on
administrative fines. The Bush administration seeks an extra $41.7
million and nearly 200 additional agents to boost work-site
Crackdown on criminals
ICE says it will work with local prison authorities to identify the
estimated 630,000 foreign-born nationals held in U.S. jails on
criminal charges so that they are deported once they finish their
Officials want to expand “fugitive operations” teams from 35 to
52 to locate the more than 590,000 fugitive immigrants who have
been ordered removed by an immigration judge. They also seek $10
million to expand efforts to track down visa violators.
The Department of Homeland Security and ICE are working to improve
the pooling of intelligence information from various agencies to
attack human-smuggling organizations and track their criminal
Sources: DHS, ICE