Immigration reform debate last year on Capitol Hill splintered both parties. But strengthening employer verification and implementing tougher sanctions for hiring illegal workers drew bipartisan support this week.
As momentum builds to return to the topic, several large human resources organizations are uniting to shape verification policy, which they contend Congress fumbled the last time around.
On Wednesday, March 7, five groups launched the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, a campaign designed to educate lawmakers about employer aspects of immigration reform.
The $1 million lobbying effort involves the Society for Human Resource Management, the HR Policy Association, the American Council on International Personnel, the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.
Legislation last year addressed verification in large part by calling for an expansion of the Basic Pilot electronic verification system, which is used by about 13,000 employers.
Many in the business community have criticized Basic Pilot for being inefficient and prone to error. The Bush administration says the system is working and touts it as the key to turning off the job magnet that attracts illegal immigrants.
The mechanism, which checks applicants’ Social Security numbers against a federal database, drew further rebuke when it proved ineffective in stopping identity theft.
In December, the Department of Homeland Security arrested 1,282 people for immigration violations at six Swift & Co. meat processing facilities. Despite Swift’s use of Basic Pilot, it became the target of enforcement because illegal workers stole identities to pose as eligible applicants. The Swift raid is part of DHS’ increased enforcement emphasis.
Beyond relying on Basic Pilot, HR initiative officials said Congress erred last year in providing too lengthy a timeframe for verification procedures, requiring employers to maintain a paper I-9 system while switching to electronic verification, imposing penalties on employers for hiring done by subcontractors, and requiring that all incumbent employees be verified in addition to new hires.
“What we saw happen last year … drove us to coming together and developing this [initiative],” says Susan Meisinger, SHRM president and CEO.
The goal is to give Congress the employer perspective.
“We want to make sure that whatever they do makes sense in the real world,” Meisinger says.
The group’s leaders asserted that the Basic Pilot system is not robust enough to cover all 5.6 million employers. They also cautioned that companies should not be an “immigration patrol,” and they shouldn’t have to pay to use a compliance system.
The group shared it views with nearly two dozen lawmakers during the past couple weeks, a time in which immigration reform has gained momentum.
The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing last week that featured DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Many of the questions they fielded had to do with employer verification.
During the past week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts and chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, has held several events to advocate comprehensive reform. He may introduce a bill as early as next week.
The issue died last year when the House and Senate failed to negotiate differences in their separate immigration bills. The House measure, backed by conservative Republicans, focused only on border security and enforcement.
The Senate version encompassed enforcement and a guest worker program as well as a path to legalization for the approximately 12 million illegal aliens currently in the country.
The fact that Democrats took over the House and Senate in the November elections doesn’t change the political calculus for the HR initiative, leaders say.
“We don’t have an ideological agenda,” says Daniel Yager, senior vice president of the HR Policy Association. “It’s not a Republican agenda. It’s not a Democratic agenda. It’s an agenda that wants to build something that works.”
In meetings on Capitol Hill, the group promotes pragmatism.
“It’s a very focused issue that we’re trying to address, and it’s, frankly, common sense,” Meisinger says.
Lawmakers have been receptive.
“There’s greater attention to the details around employer verification than there was last year,” says Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel. “They’re realizing that nobody has the exact perfect solution at this point, so there’s a need for more conversations.”
Conventional wisdom says that this year, which is free of an election, would be a better time than next year to pass an immigration bill.
But Michael Aitken, SHRM director of governmental affairs, notes that many major immigration measures have passed in election years.
And despite differences on the issue within both parties and between organizations within the same interest group—like unions and business organizations—many Republicans and Democrats, as well as the Bush administration, favor passing a bill.
“Folks have a lot of skin in the game,” Aitken says. “Comprehensive reform will get done.”