Electronic Employment Verification Coming?

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The bipartisan immigration reform plan that was announced in the U.S. Senate last week would mandate the development of a national electronic employment verification system affecting every worker in the U.S.

If the Senate proposal becomes law, the federal government would have 18 months to ready a system that could handle as many as 60 million employment verification checks annually.

The intent is to root out people working here illegally. But no system is perfect, and errors on verification checks could have big consequences: Employees who weren't cleared might lose their jobs, a potential Kafkaesque nightmare for native citizens as well as foreign-born workers.

The Congressional Budget Office, in a report last year that looked at earlier legislation seeking electronic verification (download PDF), predicted that the government would have to spend US$250 million over the first five years of a verification program compensating employees who lost jobs because of system errors. The CBO forecasted 10 errors per million for native-born workers and an initial error rate of 0.4 percent -- or 4,000 per million -- for foreign-born workers. It did that the error rate would decline with system improvements.

But errors aren't the only concern. Some policy analysts said they fear that the creation of a verification system like the one envisioned in the Senate proposal could lead to a national ID and enable the government to probe deeply into other databases, such as ones that contain tax records.

"They are going down the road of a national ID, which is already recognized as anathema to the American public," said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for limited government and protection of individual liberties.

The government wouldn't be starting from scratch on an employment verification system. It now runs a voluntary verification program, with about 17,000 employers participating out of a potential pool of 6 million or so. People familiar with the technology used to support that program said the government would need to buy additional server capacity to handle the much larger transaction volume that a mandatory national program would generate.

The existing system checks employees against Social Security and immigration data. Verification errors can occur for a variety of reasons, such as data-entry errors, misspellings by individuals or cases in which people who have stopped use their middle names or have changed their last names because of marriage.

In addition, a criticism of the verification system is that a worker can circumvent it by using fraudulent green card or Social Security information, such as the number of a deceased person. Fixing that problem could involve calls for the use of stronger authentication mechanisms, such as biometric identification cards, Harper said.

Harper testified last month about electronic verification before a subcommittee of the House Committee on the Judiciary that is responsible for issues such as immigration and border security. Also testifying was Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that is in favor of reducing immigration.

Vaughan agreed that it is easy for someone to fool the existing verification system. But she said that the system could be improved with regular audits by employers and notifications by the Social Security Administration when numbers are being used multiple times. In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is improving its analytical tools and using trend analysis in an attempt to spot fraud, Vaughan said.

"Many employers in the country want to be confident of having a legal workforce, and this gives them an easy way to check the status of their workers," said Vaughn. She added that electronic employment verification is critical, for instance, in finding immigrants who arrive in the U.S. legally but stay beyond what their visas allow.

But expanding the verification system nationwide might give the DHS broader access to government databases. Indeed, the proposed Senate bill "substantially opens up tax records and Social Security records that are currently protected," said Marc R. Rosenblum, a fellow at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute who also has testified before Congress on immigration issues.

In a statement released Thursday, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the immigration reform proposal "would give the Department on Homeland Security unlimited, open-ended access to all Social Security data, including confidential tax return information."

Grassley described protecting taxpayer information as "a cornerstone of our voluntary tax system" and asserted that the data-access authority proposed for the DHS "sends a wrecking ball at that balance and greatly exceeds any reasonable need for the information necessary to create a workable employment verification system."

Ari Schwartz, deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, said his top concern about the proposed national employment verification system is whether the data that is collected will be used for other purposes. "The No. 1 concern is mission creep," Schwartz said.

This story, "Electronic Employment Verification Coming?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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