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Immigration Debate Gives Rise To I-9 Market

August 3, 2006
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A national debate on immigration reform has stoked the employee verification market.

USIS, a provider of background screening services, launched its I-9 product in May, while Premier Employment Screening Services added an I-9 feature to its line in June.

The timing is propitious, as congressional action—and massive immigrant marches in the spring—raised the issue’s profile. If final legislation emerges this year, it is likely to include tougher border security and work-site enforcement provisions, two areas on which conservatives and moderates agree.

"It’s a pretty safe bet that I-9 is going to be part of the solution," says Timothy Dowd, president of USIS’ commercial services division. "Having (immigration) on the front page every day and the ambiguity of (potential) outcomes creates a lot of interest in what we’re doing."

Premier accelerated the development of its verification product because of a high volume of inquiries about employment eligibility compliance, says Chris Baker, the company’s CEO.

"The majority of Premier’s I-9 verification clients are utilizing the service now in order to be proactive ahead of anticipated increased penalties for noncompliance," Baker says.

Immigration reform may put the same kind of fear into companies that has been generated by the Sarbanes-Oxley overhaul of financial controls.

"The I-9 debate is prompting many employers to decide that it’s in their best interest to retain an independent, nongovernmental entity to conduct I-9 audits as a preventative best practice," Baker says.

Premier plans to charge $12 to $18 for each employee verification. The standard price is $8 per screening for the USIS product.

The House and Senate versions of immigration legislation would require employers to verify the legal status of their employees and would impose large fines and criminal sanctions on companies that knowingly hire illegal workers.

The USIS product will submit a request to search Social Security and Department of Homeland Security files after receiving employee information from a company. It claims a turnaround time of 24 to 72 hours, and a maximum of 10 days if results are contested.

The Basic Pilot electronic verification system established by the Department of Homeland Security has been called flawed, inefficient and unreliable by critics. About 8,600 companies have signed up for the pilot program. Immigration legislation would require every U.S. employer to join the electronic system.

But before any final measure can pass, it must first be approved by a House-Senate conference committee. House conservatives have balked at Senate provisions for guest worker programs and for establishing a path to naturalization for undocumented workers.

The process will not begin until after a series of national hearings on the Senate bill that House committees are holding this summer. With a fall start, the conference may have to conclude during a lame-duck session following the election.

"The American people need to know what’s in the bill and we need to hear directly from them about it," says House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois.

One business advocate of comprehensive reform says the House hearings may help her cause.

"We think bringing these hearings to the field might engender more support for getting the conference together," says Laura Reiff, co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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