Basic Pilot Adds Pics; HR Groups Unite on Policy

March 29, 2007
An electronic verification program that the U.S. government is encouraging companies to adopt will be enhanced with a photo identification tool this week, in a move that may help address concerns that the system can’t detect identity fraud.

The Department of Homeland Security will upgrade the Basic Pilot system to allow employers to access a database of green card and employment authorization document photos. The pictures can be used to confirm that the applicant is presenting authentic papers.

The new feature will be tested with 40 of the 15,000 companies participating in the verification system. It will be introduced to the others in June.

Photo identification may be a partial antidote to identity fraud, which was at the heart of a major DHS raid on six Swift & Co. meat processing facilities in December that resulted in the arrests of 1,282 people for immigration violations.

Despite Swift’s use of Basic Pilot, the company became a DHS target because illegal workers stole identities to pose as eligible applicants.

The Swift incident sent a chill through the employer community, which has criticized Basic Pilot—a Web-based system that checks new-hire information against Social Security and DHS databases—for being inefficient, prone to error and powerless against identity theft.

Gerri Ratliff, chief of the verification division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says that assigning blame to Basic Pilot for the problems at Swift is “disingenuous” because the immigrants fooled the Department of Motor Vehicles into issuing false driver’s licenses.

“That’s where the system broke down, not at the Basic Pilot stage,” she said following a presentation at a Society for Human Resource Management conference in mid-March. “Basic Pilot is improving by leaps and bounds. Employers are finding that it works.”

But SHRM and other interest groups assert that Basic Pilot is not powerful enough to cover all 7 million employers, which it would have been required to do under immigration reform bills considered last year on Capitol Hill.

In anticipation of this year’s immigration debate, SHRM and several other human resources organizations are uniting to shape verification policy, which they contend Congress has fumbled.

In early March, they launched the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, a $1 million campaign designed to educate lawmakers about employer aspects of immigration reform.

The effort stresses five principles that Congress should incorporate into verification law: shared responsibility among government, employers and employees; fair enforcement; accuracy and reliability; ease of use; and deployment of the latest technology, including such tools as photo identification.

“It’s a very focused issue that we’re trying to address, and it’s frankly common sense,” SHRM president and CEO Susan Meisinger says. “We want to make sure that whatever they do makes sense in the real world.”

The group has met with more than two dozen lawmakers during the past several weeks, as immigration reform has gained momentum. The issue died last year when the House and Senate failed to meld their separate bills.

Although immigration causes fissures within parties and interest groups, many Republicans and Democrats and the Bush administration favor reform.

“Folks have a lot of skin in the game,” says Michael Aitken, SHRM director of governmental affairs. “Comprehensive reform will get done.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.