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Comprehensive Immigration Reform Stalls in Senate

June 8, 2007
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Even if comprehensive immigration reform survives in the Senate—an outcome that was significantly set back on Thursday, June 7—the employment verification dimension of the bill is deeply flawed, according to human resource advocates who were making their case on the other side of Capitol Hill.

The fate of the bill in the Senate is now uncertain after a vote to end debate on the legislation failed 50-45 on Thursday night. Efforts earlier in the day to invoke what is called cloture also failed. If cloture is achieved, which requires 60 votes, then the Senate would move on to a final vote on the legislation.

The chamber had been debating comprehensive immigration reform for the past two weeks of the legislative calendar and had voted on more than 40 amendments to the controversial measure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, took the bill off the Senate calendar, but he indicated that it is not dead.

“I have every desire to complete this legislation,” Reid said on the Senate floor after the vote. “We all have to work—the president included—to figure out a way to get this bill passed.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, was not throwing in the towel.

“I think we are within a few days of getting to the end of what many would applaud as an important bipartisan accomplishment of this Congress,” he said in a floor speech.

McConnell asserted that more Republicans would agree to vote on final immigration legislation after they had a chance to offer more amendments. On the final cloture vote, 38 Republicans and 11 Democrats voted to continue debate, while 37 Democrats and seven Republicans voted to move to final passage.

Earlier in the day, Reid and other Democrats blamed Republicans for trying to kill the bill by choking it to death with amendments. Reid challenged President Bush to get more Republicans behind the bill, which was put together in large part by the White House.

“This year’s bill is not a Democratic bill,” Reid said during media availability in his Capitol Hill office. “This is the president’s bill. We are helping him. He can’t help himself. It can’t pass unless we get significant Republican support.”

But even if it does pass the Senate, the HR community says the employment verification aspects of the bill would cause serious problems in the workplace.

The Senate bill would require all employers to sign up for an electronic employment verification system known as Basic Pilot, which is now being used voluntarily by 16,000 companies.

Under the Web-based system, an applicant’s documents are checked against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases. If the Senate bill becomes law, employers would be required to verify all new hires within 18 months after enactment of the immigration bill and all employees within three years.

At a June 7 hearing of the House Ways & Means Subcommittee on Social Security, HR advocates testified that the Basic Pilot system, which has a nonconfirmation rate of 8 percent, is inadequate in its current form to handle all 7 million U.S. employers.

With an estimated 50 million people changing jobs each year, the Basic Pilot system could produce nonconfirmations for upwards of 4 million. Some of the rejections, however, would be for people who are not eligible for U.S. jobs.

“If they don’t do this in a thoughtful way, it will create gridlock in the employment process in this country,” Sue Meisinger, president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said in an interview during a break in the hearing.

Her organization is leading the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, which criticizes Basic Pilot for being unable to detect identity fraud. The group is calling for the government to clean up its databases before mandating that all employers use the system.

In addition, the initiative is proposing employers be given a separate option to sign up for “a secure electronic employment verification system that would verify identity through the use of state-of-the-art technology, additional background checks and the voluntary use of biometric enrollment conducted  by government-certified private vendors,” according to a June 4 letter to senators.

At the House hearing, members of both parties expressed misgivings about the ability of the government to upgrade Basic Pilot to accommodate all U.S. employers. A Social Security official at the hearing estimated that the cost could be about $370 million annually for management and compliance work.

“We think that’s doable with the appropriate funding at the beginning of each year,” said Frederick Streckewald, an assistant deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration.

Several members of the subcommittee were nonplussed.

“The word fiasco comes to my mind,” said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said, “It’s like standing an elephant on a toothpick.”

Meisinger stressed that a verification system must work efficiently and effectively because one is certain to be part of any final immigration legislation.

“Verification is the linchpin of really, truly reforming the immigration system,” she testified. “This is a debate about workplace management that impacts all employers and employees, not just those who are foreign-born. We cannot have HR—and we should not have HR—be America’s surrogate border control agents.”

Even if the Senate passes a bill soon, the process has a long way to go, as House leaders have not yet formulated their own legislation.

The HR community will make its case at each step along the way. “We’ll work even harder in the House … and when they go to conference to get the issues addressed,” Meisinger said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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