Given those political realities, the Department of Homeland Security plans to launch an outreach campaign this fall to encourage employers to sign up for its Basic Pilot verification system.
The agency reasons that the more companies it brings on board now, the easier it will be when a law mandates that all 7 million of them use electronic verification for new hires—and possibly for existing employees.
As of mid-August, 10,724 employers were using Basic Pilot. In the system, companies submit citizenship and work authorization information, which is checked against Social Security and DHS databases. About 85 percent of queries verify instantly.
Some legislative language calls for Basic Pilot to expand to all employers within 18 months of a new immigration law. The DHS is acting as if the president has already signed the bill.
"We’re very aggressively planning for the enactment of the program," says Gerri Ratliff, chief of the verification division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Ratliff spoke August 24 at an event sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that supports toughening border security and workplace enforcement.
Citizenship and Immigration Services executive director Mark Krikorian recommended that the DHS tap large employers for Basic Pilot. So far, Dunkin’ Brands is among the biggest to sign on. The company uses the system to check the status of hires at its Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Togo’s restaurants, which have 12,000 locations worldwide.
The Bush administration has requested $110 million for fiscal year 2007 to bolster Basic Pilot. Ratliff vows to increase staff and make data in the system more complete to limit mistaken non-verification. Basic Pilot cannot detect identity fraud.
Employers are wary not only of the technical glitches that can slow down or halt hiring; the dual role of the DHS also worries them.
Ratliff and her verification division are working on developing relationships with companies and making verification as efficient as possible. Meanwhile, her colleagues at Immigration Customs Enforcement are informed by the verification division when suspicions arise about a firm’s hiring record.
This tension manifests itself in the ICE Mutual Agreement Between Government and Employers program, also known as IMAGE, which is designed to foster cooperation on hiring practices. Companies might resist joining the program because it requires allowing ICE to pore over their I-9 forms.
"Many employers feel sensitivity about inviting an audit upon themselves, especially without any guarantee (of immunity)," says Irina Plumlee, head of the immigration group at law firm Gardere in Dallas.
It’s like asking the IRS to examine an employer’s books, according to Paul Donnelly, a consultant with MediaLever, whose clients include Lookout Services, an I-9 verification firm.
"There is a schizoid relationship between service and enforcement when it comes to work-site verification," he says.
Whether they sign up for Basic Pilot or not, employers have taken note of recent DHS raids that resulted in criminal charges for hiring illegal workers.
"There’s a lot of apprehension in the corporate community because they’re seeing a lot of enforcement action," says Jorge R. Lopez, a partner in the Miami office of Jackson Lewis.