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- 05-01-2006, 08:24 AM #1
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Big job hurdle for many immigrants: Basic Pilot
Big job hurdle for many immigrants: Basic Pilot
Employers use the program to screen out illegal workers, but critics say it has major flaws
BY JENNIFER BJORHUS
James Hamilton is the gatekeeper at Swift & Co.'s pork processing plant in Worthington, Minn., determining who will be hired and who will be turned away. Since nearly all of Swift's applicants these days are immigrants, determining who is or is not authorized to work in the United States is crucial.
Swift has relied on a voluntary electronic verification program developed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to separate legal from illegal. Called Basic Pilot, the Internet-based system is used by about 100 employers in Minnesota and 5,528 more nationwide.
The system would be mandatory for every U.S. employer if immigration reform bills working their way through Congress become law.
Unfortunately, Basic Pilot doesn't seem to work particularly well.
Although no problems have been documented in Minnesota, an independent evaluation requested by Congress and published in 2002 estimates Basic Pilot's error rate at 20 percent.
And, Hamilton points out, Basic Pilot has a big blind spot: It can be defeated by submitting stolen Social Security numbers.
Critics include unlikely bedfellows of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. They argue that well-intentioned attempts to do something about a big problem could make things worse.
So why bother with it? The program is better than nothing, advocates argue. And nothing is what the vast majority of the country's 7 million employers now use.
Although federal law makes it illegal for employers to knowingly hire illegal immigrants, there is no way for employers to determine whether the 29 possible documents people present are genuine.
Employers eyeball the documents, get the required Form I-9 filled out with Social Security numbers or Immigration "A" numbers and pretty much file them away. Immigration cops, when they do check in, have a hard time with enforcement.
Basic Pilot's supporters say it's effective and necessary if employers are ever going to be held accountable for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
The easy availability of counterfeit documents "has made a mockery of the current I-9 process," Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, an avid supporter of Basic Pilot, said this month in a statement.
Employers using Basic Pilot log into a Web site at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, then type in names and numbers of the new employees they've hired.
The information is electronically checked against databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. The employer gets a message back fairly quickly with a green light, or an orange light saying "tentative non-confirmation."
People who get the orange light are given a certain number of days to fix the problem at the local Social Security or immigration office, or they can challenge it.
Hamilton, at Swift, estimates he hires an average of seven employees a week and gets "tentative non-confirmations" a few times a month. Most get straightened out. In other cases, "that will be the last conversation we have with that individual."
Mike Potter, president of the local union representing Swift workers, said no one has complained about the program.
Basic Pilot's critics, however, argue it would be easier and more effective to enforce existing immigration laws and reduce the number of documents acceptable for proving work eligibility.
Their chief complaint: Basic Pilot spits out too many false negatives because the government databases it checks are riddled with errors.
Employers, too, make errors inputting data.
The errors fall most heavily on minority groups, they say, because their names frequently have difficult spellings. Hispanic people, for instance, have a custom of using two last names, which also trips up the system.
Fernando Tinoco, 51, of Chicago isn't sure what led to his false negative last month — but it cost him his job.
Tyson Foods, a company based in Springdale, Ark.-based, hired Tinoco, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, in March to work at a Chicago chicken processing plant for $8.05 an hour. Tinoco's attorney, Doug Werman, said that on the first day of orientation, a human resources staffer told Tinoco that the Basic Pilot gave him a "tentative non-confirmation."
Tinoco went to the local Social Security office and returned with a document showing he was eligible to work. On his third day at work, a staffer returned and said his Social Security number wasn't valid. He was fired.
Tinoco said he approached Tyson four times with different official documents, but Tyson wouldn't accept them. He tried again Monday, but the security guard at the gate wouldn't let him in and said no one had time to help him.
"I just wanted to work," Tinoco said through a translator.
Tinoco said he's been unable to find a job since being fired and that his wife, a janitor at a clinic, is supporting the family. Werman Law Office PC in Chicago filed discrimination charges Friday on his behalf with the Justice Department.
A Tyson Foods spokesman said the company was reviewing the allegations and has let Tinoco know "there is a job opportunity available for him at our plant."
"There's a fine line employers must walk between asking for enough information to verify the documents of a newly hired worker and asking for too much," spokesman Gary Mickelson said by e-mail.
A report on Basic Pilot released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in February estimates Basic Pilot's error rate at 20 percent, based on an independent evaluation in 2002 by the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University and Westat, a private research organization that does work for the U.S. government. The Chamber interprets the results this way: One out of five people eligible to work in the U.S. are originally told by Basic Pilot they aren't.
"Basic Pilot right now doesn't work," said Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Citizenship and Immigration Services disputes the Chamber's figures. It said that since Basic Pilot only issues "tentative non-confirmations" and never rejects people outright, it's very hard to calculate an error rate.
Immigration officials estimate that making Basic Pilot mandatory will cost $114 million a year, although final costs will vary depending on what Congress mandates.
Costs, however, are not the biggest issue. Critics, such as the National Immigration Law Center and National Council of La Raza, argue it's far too easy for employers to misuse Basic Pilot to discriminate against minorities in the hiring process, and there are many documented cases. Employers aren't supposed to tap into Basic Pilot until after hiring the person, at which point they have three days to electronically check the information.
"There's going to be a lot of headaches," said Uriel Perez Espinosa, vice president of Unite Here Local 17, which represents about 65 percent of the hotel staff in downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.
Although his members haven't encountered the system, Perez Espinosa is well aware of the long-standing problems immigrants have with Social Security "mismatches" even without Basic Pilot.
Expanding electronic checks with Basic Pilot is certain to cause many more mismatches, which spells work disruptions for certain employers with heavy concentrations of immigrants in their work force. He guesses thousands of Minnesotans could be affected.
The specter of U.S. employers being flooded with mismatches if Basic Pilot goes mandatory is unrealistic, said CIS spokesman Bill Strassberger, pointing out that immigrants make up just a fraction of the work force.
The ACLU's primary concern is about privacy. CIS says it already maintains an "extremely large database of information on all immigrants and non-immigrants — close to 20 million files in storage — and that it has a strong record of protecting it.
"To use that as an excuse to scuttle the program would undermine the integrity and security of the country," said Strassberger.
Hamilton, the Swift plant official, is most concerned about stolen Social Security numbers. Expanding Basic Pilot might increase black market demand for stolen numbers, he said.
"There's just going to be a bigger demand to circumnavigate the loophole," he said. "Basic Pilot program is an improvement, but it's not foolproof. It's not the end answer."
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