Workforce.com

President Touts Basic Pilot Employment Verification System

May 16, 2007

While the Senate is enmeshed in tortuous negotiations over a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill, President Bush gave his support on Wednesday, May 16, to a government-run employment verification system that human resources organizations have dismissed as ineffective.

Bush conducted a roundtable at the Embassy Suites hotel near the Washington Convention Center with two members of his Cabinet and five representatives of corporations that use the Basic Pilot verification system.

Both Bush and congressional leaders have asserted that work-site enforcement is integral to achieving immigration reform. But major HR groups don’t want Basic Pilot to be the foundation for enforcement because it cannot stop identity theft.

In December, the government conducted an immigration raid that resulted in 1,282 arrests at Swift & Co., the nation’s largest meat processor. Swift, one of 16,000 U.S. employers using Basic Pilot, says the disruption to its operations has cost $30 million.

The workers who were targeted had stolen American identities to qualify for employment.

The presidential event on Wednesday emphasized an upgrade that is being made to Basic Pilot, a Web-based system that checks new-hire information against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases.

In recent weeks, a mechanism has been added to the system that incorporates green card and employment authorization photos so employers can check them against photos on documents presented by new hires.

The photo tool, which is designed to combat identity fraud, is being tested with 40 companies and will be rolled out in the coming months.

Employers “need help from the government to make sure the person they hire is here legally, that they’re not dealing with forged documents,” Bush said following the event, according to a White House transcript. “In other words, we can’t ask our employers to verify somebody here unless we help them.”

The Embassy Suites in Washington has been using Basic Pilot since the facility opened in November 2005, says Glenda Wooten-Ingram, director of human resources at the hotel.

Wooten-Ingram participated in the presidential meeting, which took place around a nondescript table in a small conference room in the hotel’s basement, where White House aides put up a backdrop promoting comprehensive reform.

“It’s been working great,” Wooten-Ingram says of Basic Pilot. The hotel has hired 451 employees since it opened. About 10 percent of applicants have been rejected by Basic Pilot as ineligible to work.

Job seekers tend not to contest the Basic Pilot verdict with the Social Security Administration. “They don’t come back,” Wooten-Ingram says. The hotel has not had problems with tentative nonconfirmations that turn out to be wrong.

In the Basic Pilot test that was run for Bush, the system provided verification within three seconds, according to Wooten-Ingram.

Such results don’t assuage the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, a group whose members include the Society for Human Resource Management and the HR Policy Association.

The organization is lobbying to get rid of the trial verification system.

“Instead of requiring all U.S. employers to use Basic Pilot—as current [immigration legislative] proposals would mandate—Congress should take steps toward enacting [a] secure electronic employment verification system that relies on biometric or other state-of-the-art identification technology and can make false documents and identity theft ineffective,” the group said in a statement released a couple hours after the Bush event.

Wooten-Ingram, however, says the photo tool may help address identity theft. She also says it can make verification easier—a process that now can involve many documents but not visual identification.

“It really lightens the burden off HR,” she says. “The photo is blown up very big so that you can see.”

While photos are added to Basic Pilot, its fate likely will be determined in congressional negotiations over immigration reform.

On Wednesday, May 16, Bush asserted that such efforts should encompass border security, work-site enforcement, a temporary worker program and a process for dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country that is “without amnesty [and] without animosity.”

Mark Schoeff Jr.