WASHINGTON — IN a report to Congress tomorrow, a federal commission will recommend establishment of a computerized, national registry to try to prevent unauthorized foreigners from working in this country.
The registry, which would compile minimal data on United States residents from the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), would be easily accessible to employers, who must ensure that all people they hire are allowed to work.
To former Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas, chairman of the United States Commission on Immigration Reform, the registry represents ``the most promising option for more secure, nondiscriminatory verification'' of work status. The commission proposes that the five states with the largest number of undocumented workers - California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois - test the idea first in pilot programs.
The underlying theory is that if it becomes more difficult for illegal aliens to find work in the US, they will stop coming in such large numbers. But civil libertarians and immigrant-rights groups, raising the specter of Big Brother, are geared up to try to squelch the registry proposal.
``There will be no way to guarantee when and how the verification system is used,'' says Cecilia Munoz, senior policy analyst of the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a Latino organization, raising one of many objections to the plan.
The US commission, in fact, intentionally publicized the outlines of its proposal weeks ago so that critics would air their complaints and the commission could fine-tune its plan before tomorrow's unveiling to Congress, says Susan Martin, the commission's executive director.
``We have taken very, very seriously the concerns with civil liberties,'' says Ms. Martin. ``We are trying to touch on all the protections that need to be in place.''
For example, she says, the registry would be a separate database containing the minimal information a job applicant would need to supply to cross-check eligibility for work - name, Social Security number, date of birth, and mother's maiden name - in addition to information on a person's work status from the INS, if that person is a foreigner. Separate databases help keep curious eyes from peering into information they have no business seeing, say supporters of the plan.
Some civil libertarians argue that the commission proposal would start the US down a slippery slope toward issuance of national identity cards to all Americans, and the potential for excessive government control over people's lives.
The commission is not specifically proposing ID cards. Rather, it is proposing that states use the pilot program to test various methods for reforming the system. In three years, the president and Congress would recommend how, if at all, to change the current way in which employers verify worker eligibility.
One point that all sides agree on is that the present system is flawed. Currently, all job candidates must present three out of a possible 29 documents to prove their status to their potential employers. Such a range of options leaves the system open to abuse. Some employers don't want to bother verifying their hires' eligibility, and so discriminate against people with foreign-sounding names or accents, say immigrant-rights groups.
On the flip side, some employers ignore the rules and hire undocumented workers ``off the books,'' leaving those workers with no rights. The chances of getting caught are fairly small: The INS has only 350 inspectors to pursue the thousands of reports of undocumented foreigners working in US companies nationwide.
Other commission recommendations include:
* Better border management. First, that means preventing illegal entry by adding personnel to border patrols and improving technology. Second, it should be made easier for those allowed to cross the border by issuing border crossing cards.
* A requirement that families who sponsor the immigration of relatives be held financially responsible for them. Currently, sponsors sign only nonbinding affidavits of support, and are not held responsible in the event family members apply for welfare.
* Barring illegal immigrants from receiving most forms of public assistance. Exceptions would be emergency medical care, immunizations, and schooling, which courts have said areconstitutionally mandated.
* Maintaining legal immigrants' eligibility for public-assistance programs. Some members of Congress have proposed removing those benefits.
One issue the US commission discovered was the high percentage of inaccurate data held in Social Security and INS records. If a job applicant felt he or she was incorrectly denied employment, applicants can appeal the rejection and work to correct discrepancies in the database.
Martin, the commission's director, says getting the registry up and running will be relatively easy given that the data are already computerized. The major expense, she says, will come in correcting all the mistakes.