Preventing Illegal Employment: Federal “Basic Pilot” Verification Program is an Effective and Business-friendly Tool

By Jessica M. Vaughan on March 14, 2007

House Committee on Labor
Rhode Island General Assembly
Providence, Rhode Island

March 14, 2007

Statement of Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst
Center for Immigration Studies

Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Immigration Studies

Thank you for the opportunity to submit this testimony in connection with House Bill 5392. The bill would help prevent the employment of illegal aliens in Rhode Island by requiring employers in this state to participate in the federal status verification program known as Basic Pilot. This program enables employers to electronically verify the work eligibility of new hires directly with the appropriate federal agencies, and is widely considered to be one of the most effective tools available to foster increased compliance with immigration laws. Employers enrolled in the web-based program, including many in Rhode Island, report that it is easier to use than the existing I-9 paperwork system, and brings no disruption to employers and legal workers. The main drawback to Basic Pilot is that it is now voluntary, so those employers who are deliberately ignoring immigration laws can choose not to participate. Requiring all Rhode Island employers to use this system will disrupt illegal hiring practices that disadvantage law-abiding employers.

Background. I am a Senior Policy Analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS),1 based in Washington, DC. The Center is a non-partisan, independent research institute devoted to the study of immigration policy and the impact of immigration on American society. I have worked with federal lawmakers and with agencies and legislators in several states on immigration enforcement and compliance issues.

Illegal immigration is a serious and growing problem. The Center estimates that a population of roughly 12 million illegal aliens lives in the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 20,000-40,000 illegal aliens are residing in Rhode Island,2 representing roughly 15 percent of the foreign-born population.3

Illegal workers take jobs that could be filled by the large number of native or legal immigrant workers who are currently un- or under-employed. Illegal immigration contributes significantly to the size of the population living in poverty and needing social services. Our research shows that they do not take jobs Americans won't do, but mainly take low-skill jobs at lower wages than employers would have to offer to legal workers, causing labor market distortions and depressing wages in low-skill sectors.4

The problem of illegal immigration cannot be solved with border control measures alone. Despite stepped up efforts along parts of the border, many illegal migrants still are able to elude the Border Patrol. In addition, it is believed that as many as 40% of illegal aliens arrive here on planes or ships, and overstayed their visa. For this reason, interior enforcement, including workplace compliance is a critical tool.

In response to growing pressure from Congress, critical government audits, and a restive public, the Department of Homeland Security has stepped up workplace enforcement activities such as last week's raid of the Michael Bianco factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Firm actions against rogue employers such as this will always be needed to protect workers from exploitation and to deter others, but are costly on many levels. The New Bedford raid resulted in 361 arrests, but required 11 months of investigation and preparation by ICE, utilized 300 federal agents, and created some unintended victims. To make a dent in the level of illegal employment, workplace enforcement needs to be balanced with compliance programs such as Basic Pilot. If a significant share of this activity can be prevented through programs such as Basic Pilot, there will be less need for workplace raids.

Immigration policy is a largely a federal responsibility. However, the prospects for meaningful reforms at the federal level that would ease the fiscal, economic, and social burdens imposed on the states by illegal immigration appear remote at this time. The Bush Administration has stepped up enforcement modestly, but conditions further efforts on the adoption of a temporary workers program that is bitterly opposed by many in Congress. Even under new leadership, members of Congress in both parties remain polarized over legislative options. Mandatory participation in Basic Pilot is one of the few policy tools that has been endorsed by lawmakers and opinion leaders across the spectrum of opinion, and was approved by both House and Senate last year, but because no compromise was reached on comprehensive immigration reform, it was not ultimately enacted.

Rhode Island need not wait for the U.S. Congress to sort out the larger issues. Any jurisdiction is free to take advantage of the Basic Pilot Program in order to prevent illegal employment practices. Research indicates that this action would result in a noticeable decline in the size of the illegal alien population in this state, without placing an unreasonable burden on Rhode Island employers.5 Equally important, by providing confirmation of work authorization directly from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and/or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Basic Pilot takes the guesswork out of determining a new employee's status, so that employers do not have to become quasi-immigration agents, making judgments regarding an applicant's immigration status that they are not qualified to make. Further, Basic Pilot helps ensure that businesses have a stable workforce that is less susceptible to identity fraud and less likely to be disrupted by the increasing level of federal workplace enforcement activity.

History of Basic Pilot. It is widely recognized that employment is the most common incentive for illegal immigration to the United States. In 1986, with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, it became illegal for employers to knowingly hire illegal aliens. The law required employees to produce documents establishing eligibility for work, but provided no way for employers to ascertain if the documents are legitimate. This spawned a huge counterfeit document industry and enabled employers who deliberately ignore immigration laws to get away with accepting fraudulent documents, while holding out the specter of discrimination charges against those conscientious employers who might inspect documents too closely.

In 1997, the bipartisan blue-ribbon Commission on Immigration Reform, headed by former Democratic Texas Congresswoman and civil rights icon Barbara Jordan, concluded: Reducing the employment magnet is the linchpin of a comprehensive strategy to deter unlawful migration. . . . Strategies to deter unlawful entries and visa overstays require both a reliable process for verifying authorization to work and an enforcement capacity to ensure that employers adhere to all immigration-related labor standards. The Commission supports implementation of pilot programs to test what we believe is the most promising option for verifying work authorization: a computerized registry based on the social security number."6

Three pilot programs were introduced in 1997 and the most successful, known as Basic Pilot, was reauthorized and expanded by Congress in 2004. An independent evaluation carried out by Temple University's Institute for Survey Research and the private research firm Westat found that Basic Pilot did reduce unauthorized employment among participating employers (the program is currently voluntary).7 The study said that the program did this in two ways. It identified illegal aliens who had submitted false Social Security numbers or immigration documents and it deterred illegal aliens from seeking jobs at employers who participated in the program. A majority of the participating employers surveyed (64%) said that the number of illegal workers applying for work had been reduced under Basic Pilot and nearly all (95%) felt that the program had reduced the likelihood that they would hire illegal aliens.

According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Verification Office, as of January 23, 2007, approximately 77 Rhode Island companies, employing more than 6,000 workers, were registered for Basic Pilot. There are more than 14,000 employers using Basic Pilot nationwide.

How Basic Pilot Works. Participating employers must electronically verify the status of all newly-hired workers within three days of hire, using information that an employee is already required to provide on the Form I-9. Employers key information (name, date of birth, and Social Security number or immigration documentation) into a simple form accessible on the DHS web site and transmit it to DHS. DHS then transmits the information to SSA, which checks the validity of the Social Security number, name, date of birth, and citizenship provided by the worker. The data on non-citizens is confirmed by SSA, and then referred back to DHS to verify work authorization according to that agency's immigration records. Most queries (87%) receive a positive response within three to five seconds. If the system cannot immediately verify status, the query is referred to other DHS offices in the field that process immigration applications, in case the non-citizen has very recently been approved to work. Some of these cases are resolved very quickly, even within one day. Others may take up to ten days.

If neither agency can confirm work authorization on the individual, the employer receives a tentative non-confirmation response. The employer is supposed to check the accuracy of the information it submitted (e.g. for misspellings or transposed numbers) and either resubmit to DHS or ask the employee to resolve the problem with SSA or DHS. If workers do not contest or resolve the non-confirmation finding within eight working days, Basic Pilot issues a final non-confirmation notice, and employers are required to either immediately terminate the employee or notify DHS that they are continuing to employ the person (possibly inviting an investigation and penalties).

Accuracy and Completeness of the Basic Pilot Databases. The Basic Pilot program relies on the databases maintained by the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security. These agencies recognize the need to return accurate results to employers, so that authorized workers are not denied employment. Some organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, National Immigration Law Center and ethnic advocacy groups, have objected to mandatory verification on the grounds that some authorized individuals could be denied employment due to errors in the database. This is theoretically a possibility; however, the system has safeguards built in to ensure that a tentative non-confirmation does not result in termination. Upon receipt of a tentative non-confirmation, employers have the chance to correct any data entry errors that may have been made, and the employee has a chance to correct any erroneous or out-dated information in the federal record. One common reason for a discrepancy is that the worker recently was married or divorced, but neglected to notify the SSA. Some workers may be known by their middle name, and use that on a job application, but find that the Social Security record has the full legal name. Expanding mandatory use of Basic Pilot will actually work to increase the accuracy of these federal databases, by providing further impetus for workers to update or correct the Social Security database well before it is time for them to begin collecting Social Security benefits.

As for the immigration records, DHS has taken steps to make the Basic Pilot system more interoperable with all the various sub-systems that could confirm an alien's work authorization, including recent immigrants, temporary workers, refugees and asylees, those who change status, and other special cases. Most of the criticisms raising this objection are based on the early evaluations of Basic Pilot, and the issues have since been addressed. For instance, the first evaluation of Basic Pilot in 2002 noted that sometimes a new immigrant's data would not be entered into the system for 6-9 months, meaning he could wrongfully be denied authorization. By 2005 it only took 10-12 days for this information to make it into the system, which is well within the time period before someone would be terminated for non-confirmation. Following the appropriation of more than $100 million in federal funding earmarked for Basic Pilot last year, DHS is now in the process of doing four new upgrades, scheduled for completion by June, 2007.

If a tentative non-confirmation turns out not to be the result of inaccurate data entry, the agencies will attempt a manual confirmation, whereby a staff member will comb records by hand to try to establish a worker's status. According to DHS, this is usually accomplished in anywhere from one to ten days, depending on the situation.

The real-life experience of the state of Arizona is instructive. Arizona has been verifying the Social Security numbers of all 42,000 state employees about every five weeks since the fall of 2005. These regular audits reportedly turned up only 409 no-matches over the year, most of which were caused by the kind of name changes described above, meaning more than 99.9 percent of the state employees were verified without a problem. That is an impressive accuracy rate that should reassure other state governments contemplating this move.

Basic Pilot is Free. Enrollment in Basic Pilot is free to employers. The system is web-based, and requires only a personal computer and Internet connection, which the vast majority of employers already have and use. DHS provides a software patch to enable the user's computer system to compile and transmit data. The only indirect cost is the time spent on the initial set-up and the tutorial. According to the Verification Office, the average time spent learning how to use the system is one to two hours.

If the program were to be made mandatory, the only cost would be to those businesses who do not currently use the Internet. According to a private research company (Jupiter Research, quoted in a 12/15/06 story) already 78 percent of small businesses (<100 employees) use the Internet, and the number is supposed to continue to climb over time. Companies not wishing to establish Internet connectivity could hire one of 310 private-sector "designated agents" to conduct the Basic Pilot check for them, much as many companies use private payroll or tax services.

Employers Positive About Basic Pilot. An independent evaluation of Basic Pilot commissioned by DHS found that participating employers overwhelmingly report positive experiences with the program 96 percent think that it is an effective tool for status verification.8 Among other findings:

  • 92% of employers thought the verification did not overburden their staff.
  • 93% of employers thought Basic Pilot was easier than the existing I-9 process.

DHS provides a variety of options for administering the program that are designed to accommodate all types of employers (a complete description is available at Training tutorials and manuals are available on the DHS web site.

Sue Kraft, Vice President of 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 them avoid hiring illegal aliens. The attitudes of human resources professionals nationwide is similarly enthusiastic a recent survey by the Society of Human Resource Management found that 92% of its members support electronic immigration status verification.

Recent Upgrades to Basic Pilot. A common objection to mandating employer participation in Basic Pilot is that the system works fine with the relatively small numbers of employers now participating on a voluntary basis, but it cannot handle a large volume of inquiries. In 2006, the Basic Pilot system handled over 1.7 million queries. In response to growing interest and the possibility of a federal mandate, the Verification Office recently tested the system to determine its capacity or breaking point. It was determined that the system can handle up to 40 million queries annually.9 The Verification Office plans to add additional servers to meet the demand well before it would approach the breaking point.

Impact of Basic Pilot. The implementation of a mandatory version of the Basic Pilot program has the potential to affect a large share of the illegal alien population within just a few years. Research suggests that between 50 and 60 percent of employed illegal aliens are working on the books."10 Many of these workers are employed in sectors such as construction, food service, hospitality, and farming, where the turnover rates are high. This suggests that a mandate to verify all new hires could potentially deny employment to as many as half of the illegal alien job-seekers within two to three years.

A number of scenarios are likely to result. Some illegal aliens will seek employment off the books to avoid the screening, and undoubtedly there will be employers willing to hire in this way. Existing state labor laws can help address this problem. Others will resort to identity theft instead of counterfeit documents; that is, seeking employment using the name and Social Security number of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. However, a new federal enforcement initiative launched jointly by the Social Security Administration and DHS in August, 2006 will help close off that option. These agencies will compare information in their databases, check for multiple uses of numbers, and notify employers, who will be obliged to act on the information.

Undoubtedly, a large share of the illegal population, when denied easy access to employment, will choose to reside in other states or return home voluntarily. One recent study found that employment status verification programs had the potential to reduce the illegal Mexican population by as much as 40 percent over five years.11

Conclusion. This legislation is a reasonable approach to a difficult problem, and is consistent with the direction many states are moving, and eventually federal government, I believe. Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, and Arizona already have passed electronic verification for public agency employees. Committees in the legislatures of Indiana and Oklahoma have passed mandatory verification bills for all employers this year, and a similar bill is scheduled for a hearing in Oregon in the near future. North Carolina has not mandated Basic Pilot participation, but is auditing state employees to ensure they are verifying social security numbers. There are probably others that have escaped my attention.

These moves are popular with the public. A USA TODAY/Gallup poll released on Monday found that 69 percent of the public feels that states have not done enough to address illegal immigration.12

Mandatory verification of immigration status for new employment is not a silver bullet. Rather, it should be considered as one key part of a larger strategy to address illegal immigration that relies on partnerships between federal and state authorities, and between government agencies. This strategy acknowledges that the population of more than 12 million illegal immigrants realistically cannot be apprehended and deported one by one. Nor is the federal government likely to enact a mass amnesty to legalize this population. Instead, lawmakers should rely on an array of policies to increase the day-to-day enforcement of immigration laws, prevent employment, and encourage voluntary compliance with immigration laws. Other proven tools include electronic status verification for public benefits, immigration law training for state and local law enforcement and public agency employees, strict standards for drivers licensing, and rigorous identification standards for financial institutions. Adoption of these policies will convince a large number of illegal aliens that they would be better off returning home on their own, thereby easing the burden on local communities, and enabling federal authorities to concentrate their resources on the most problematic cases.

Respectfully submitted by:

Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst
Center for Immigration Studies
[email protected]


2 Estimates of the Unauthorized Migrant Population for States based on the March 2005 CPS, Pew Hispanic Center, April 26, 2006,

3 Immigrants at Mid-Decade: A Snapshot of America's Foreign-born Population in 2005, by Steven A. Camarota, Center for Immigration Studies, December, 2005,

4 Dropping Out: Immigrant Entry and Native Exit From the Labor Market, 2000-2005, by Steven A. Camarota, March, 2006,….

5 Attrition Through Enforcement: A Cost-Effective Strategy to Shrink the Illegal Population, Jessica M. Vaughan, Center for Immigration Studies, April 2006,

6 U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, 1997 Report to Congress Executive Summary, p. xxxiv. Available at

7 Findings of the Basic Pilot Evaluation, Institute for Survey Research (Temple University) and Westat, June 2002 and Report to Congress on the Basic Pilot Program, Department of Homeland Security/U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, June 2004, p. 3. Available at

8 Temple/Westat study, p. 102.

9 The total number of new-hires nationally is estimated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to be approaching 60 million, so even considering the growing popularity of this program, we are still well within the syst's capacity.

10 See Camarota, The High Cost of Cheap Labor, by Steven Camarota, p. 17.

11 Networks: An Estimable Model of Illegal Mexican Immigration, by Aldo Colussi, University of Pennsylvania, November, 2003.

12 USA TODAY, March 13, 2007, p. 2B