An Easy Curb On Illegal Immigration

By Jessica M. Vaughan on March 14, 2007

The Providence Journal, Wednesday, March 14, 2007

WASHINGTON -- STATE LEGISLATURES have lost no time springing into action this year to address the illegal immigration problem. Perhaps anticipating that Congress again will fail to agree on meaningful reforms to ease the fiscal, economic and social burdens illegal immigration imposes on states, at least 10 legislatures so far, including Rhode Island's, are considering new laws to help.

The most widely accepted approach is to prevent the employment of illegal aliens by making sure that businesses, state agencies and their contractors confirm the immigration status of new employees with the federal government. Colorado, Georgia and Idaho have already passed some degree of mandatory verification, and a bill filed by Sen. Marc Cote and Rep. Jon Brien, two Democrats from Woonsocket, would establish a similar practice in the Ocean State.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 20,000-40,000 illegal aliens living in Rhode Island, representing nearly 15 percent of the total immigrant population. Many of them sneaked across the U.S. border, but at least one-third probably arrived on a temporary visa and stayed beyond the permitted time. Thus enforcement efforts need to go beyond border control to include the work place. It is generally agreed that most illegal aliens come for jobs; it is estimated that about half are able to work "on the books" using fake or stolen documents. Both academic research and actual experience show that if illegal aliens cannot get jobs, they will choose not to come or not to overstay their permitted time, and encouraging such voluntary compliance is preferable to the costly and harsh alternative of forcible removal.

The Cote-Brien bill is comprehensive enough to have a noticeable impact on the problem of illegal employment in Rhode Island, and fair enough to allow extra time for small businesses to comply. Starting with the largest employers, it would gradually phase in a requirement for all Rhode Island employers to use the federal Basic Employment Verification Pilot Program, or Basic Pilot.

Introduced in 1997, Basic Pilot lets businesses electronically query the Department of Homeland Security to verify a new employee's status, at no cost. Employers send in the name, date of birth, Social Security number and immigration documentation, all of which are currently collected on paper forms, to be checked against Social Security and immigration databases.

If the new employee's information does not check out, he or she must be let go or the company is subject to penalties. This system makes it much harder for illegal aliens to deceive their employers with fake documents, and harder for employers to get away with deliberately ignoring them, while helping those employers who want to do the right thing.

Already, nearly 80 employers in Rhode Island are using the program, covering roughly 6,000 employees. Sue Kraft, vice president for corporate administration and human resources at Purvis Systems, an information-technology-services corporation based in Middletown, who has used Basic Pilot for over two years, says, "It is very, very simple to use. You get a quick response - no more than 15 seconds."

Similarly, Lisa Rosa-Smith, the human-resources administrative assistant at the Comfort Inn in Warwick, reports that she has had "no problems" with the system, and believes that it helps the company avoid hiring illegal aliens.

As of January, nearly 14,000 employers nationwide were enrolled. As use of the program has spread, opponents of immigration-law enforcement have attacked the idea of denying jobs to illegal aliens in this way, claiming that it cannot stop use of fraudulent documents, and that the federal databases are inaccurate, so increased use of them will result in many people being wrongfully let go.

The Basic Pilot system cannot by itself solve the problem of illegal employment or identity fraud. It can expose the use of bogus immigration documents and identification numbers, but may not always detect when someone is using a stolen but genuine Social Security number. Other federal initiatives will do that, however, and employers who wish to limit their vulnerability to that kind of fraud may also voluntarily conduct regular payroll audits on all employees using another Social Security Administration program or with the help of a private immigration compliance services firm.

Theoretically, accuracy could be a problem in any database, but employers, individuals and the federal agencies have the opportunity to correct errors before anyone is fired. People who have neglected to update their records after marriage, divorce or other normal life changes need to do this at some point, so if a job change provides the impetus, so much the better. In all the years it has been in use, critics have yet to identify a single case of someone being wrongfully terminated as a result of an error in the Basic Pilot system.

To be sure, government officials should continue outreach efforts to make sure that employers use the program appropriately, and continue their efforts to upgrade the system to keep up with increasing use.

The biggest problem with Basic Pilot is that the program is currently voluntary, instead of mandatory. As long as some rogue employers are free to skirt the law by hiring illegal workers, and excuse themselves from adhering to the norms on wages, benefits and working conditions, all those who compete with them are at a significant disadvantage. Meanwhile, taxpayers are left to pick up the tab for the social safety net needed to support these low-paid workers and their families.

Mandatory verification of immigration status for new employment is not a magic solution to the national illegal-immigration problem. But it is something states can do for their own benefit. Realistically, the national population of more than 12 million illegal immigrants cannot be apprehended and removed one by one. Nor is the federal government likely to enact a mass amnesty to legalize them.

By preventing employment and access to other benefits, eventually many illegal aliens will choose to return home on their own, and others will decide not to come at all. Not only will this reduce the fiscal burden of illegal immigration, it will open up employment opportunities for millions of our own workers, especially those lacking skills and education, such as many recent immigrants and young people who are new to the job market.

Jessica M. Vaughan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.