Verification of Employment Authorization

Federal Basic Pilot Program is an Effective and Employer-friendly Tool for Immigration Law Compliance

By Jessica M. Vaughan on February 21, 2006

Testimony prepared for:

State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee
Colorado General Assembly
Denver, Colorado
 
February 21, 2006
 
Jessica M. Vaughan
Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Immigration Studies 

I appreciate the opportunity to submit this testimony in connection with the bill submitted by Mr. Schultheis, which would require Colorado employers to participate in the federal program known as Basic Pilot. This program enables employers to electronically verify the work eligibility of newly hired non-citizens directly with the appropriate federal agencies using the Internet, and is considered one of the most promising and effective tools available to encourage compliance with immigration laws. Employers now using the web-based program report that it is easier to use than the current paperwork-reliant system, and brings virtually no disruption to employers and legal workers.


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 the effects of immigration and to informing the development of immigration policies that lead to improved immigration law enforcement and enhance national security. I have worked with federal lawmakers and with agencies and legislators in several states on immigration policy issues.

Illegal immigration is a serious and growing problem. The Center estimates that a population of roughly 11 million illegal aliens lives in the United States, with about 220,000 residing in Colorado, representing nearly half of the foreign-born population.[2]

Our research shows that the costs to government of this large illegal immigrant population are substantial. We estimate that in 2002, the cost to the federal government was roughly $10 billion, even after accounting for taxes paid by illegal aliens. These costs are primarily for Medicaid, health care for the uninsured, food assistance programs, the federal prison and court systems, and education funding.[3] The state of Colorado incurs millions of dollars of additional annual costs from illegal immigration, primarily for Medicaid, education, health care, the criminal justice system, and public assistance in various forms, including public housing.

Immigration policy is a largely a federal responsibility. However, the prospects for significant reforms that would ease the fiscal, economic, and social burdens imposed on the states by illegal immigration appear remote at this time. The Bush Administration border security plan, known as the Secure Border Initiative, focuses almost exclusively on border control and removing criminal aliens, with almost no attention to reducing the size of the illegal population already here. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed an important enforcement bill, H.R. 4437, known as the Sensenbrenner bill which, among other things, would gradually require all employers nationwide to use the Basic Pilot Program to verify that their workers are eligible for employment. However, the Senate is expected to pass a bill that will be incompatible with the House version, which will likely result in no final bill at all.

Colorado need not wait for the U.S. Congress to act. Any jurisdiction is free to take advantage of the Basic Pilot Program in order to prevent the illegal employment of aliens not authorized to work here. This action would likely result in a substantial and noticeable decline in the size of the illegal alien population in this state, without placing an unreasonable burden on Colorado employers. 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 an 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, and can be more confident of having a legal workforce.

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 employers to demand documents establishing an alien's eligibility for work, but provided no easy way for employers to ascertain if the documents are legitimate, spawning a huge counterfeit document industry and enabling employers who wish to ignore immigration laws to accept 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 Barbara Jordan of Texas, 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."[4]

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).[5] 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. The evaluation team found that about 10 percent of the employees screened in the program were illegal aliens. 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. The most important program weaknesses identified by the evaluators involved the accurate and timely entry of information into government databases, which they found had been addressed and improved by the agencies involved by the time Basic Pilot was reauthorized in 2004.

According to DHS data, approximately 1,835 employers in Colorado were participating as of June, 2005.

How Basic Pilot Works. Participating employers must electronically verify the status of all newly-hired workers within three days of hire, using information that a new hire is already required to provide on the Form I-9. Employers key data 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 employers receive verification within 24 hours. If DHS 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.

If neither agency can confirm work authorization on the individual within 24 hours, 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 10 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 sanctions).

Employers Positive About Basic Pilot. The 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.[6] 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 www.uscis.gov/graphics/services). Training tutorials and manuals are available on the DHS web site. In addition, employers may choose to contract with approved Designated Agents, who can complete the verification process for employers.

Basic Pilot is Inexpensive. The direct cost to employers of implementing this program would include the cost of setting up the electronic system, either via a toll-free telephone number (for employers without Internet access) or the web-based system. The system requires a software patch to enable the computer system to compile and transmit data. The INS/Westat study reported that fewer than half of the participating employers reported any significant start-up cost, and even for the largest employers, this was estimated to be about $1,000. Note that this estimate dates back to 2004, before DHS completed the upgrade to a web-based system. The per/transaction fee ranges from four to 32 cents, depending on the type of computer system in use by the employer.

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."[7] Many of these workers are employed in sectors such as construction, restaurant, hospitality, and farming, where the turnover rates are high. This suggests that a mandate to verify all new hires could possibly identify as many as half of the unauthorized workers within two to three years. If the program required verification of all employees, of course the numbers would be larger.

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. Others will resort to identity fraud instead of counterfeit documents; that is, seeking employment using the name and Social Security number of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, though this is more costly, and therefore less likely option. These alternatives to regular employment also render the illegal alien more likely to be identified and removed by federal immigration authorities. Undoubtedly, a large share of the population, when denied easy access to employment, will choose to reside in other states or return to the home country 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.[8]

Conclusion. This legislation is a realistic approach to a difficult and complicated problem, and is consistent with the direction many states are moving, and probably the federal government, eventually. It is not a silver bullet, but should be viewed as part of a larger strategy to deal with illegal immigration that relies on partnerships between federal and state authorities, and between government agencies. This strategy acknowledges that the population of more than 10 million illegal immigrants can not 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, diminish the draw of employment, and encourage voluntary compliance with immigration laws. Eventually, those who are here in violation of our laws will realize that they can no longer hide or gain access to the benefits intended for legal residents, and a large share will choose to return home on their own.


[1] https://cis.org/

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

[3] The High Cost of Cheap Labor: Illegal Immigration and the Federal Budget, by Steven Camarota, August, 2004, at https://cis.org/Report/High-Cost-Cheap-Labor.

[4] U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, 1997 Report to Congress Executive Summary, p. xxxiv. Available at www.utexas.edu/lbj/uscir/bacoming/ex-summary.pdf.

[5] 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 www.uscis.gov/graphics/aboutus/repsstudies.

[6] Temple/Westat study, p. 102.

[7] See The High Cost of Cheap Labor, by Steven Camarota, Center for Immigration Studies, August, 2004, p. 17. Available at https://cis.org/Report/High-Cost-Cheap-Labor.

[8] "Migrants' Networks: An Estimable Model of Illegal Mexican Immigration," by Aldo Colussi, University of Pennsylvania, November, 2003.