Bosses Bypass Worker-status Website

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
mandatory basis.

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.”