Workplace Checks Catch Illegal Aliens
In test program, employers transmit new-worker data to INS to see if documents are valid
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Here's how the program works: On hiring a new worker, an employer immediately sends data on the new employee, by computer, to the INS. The information comes from INS form I-9, which the employer must fill out with all new workers. The INS - which has records on legal immigrants - then does a computer check of its database to determine the employee's eligibility.Skip to next paragraph
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A key problem for the employers who want to operate legally is that applicants can select from up to 29 different documents to prove citizenship and/or eligibility to work. Many of these documents are easy to falsify, and many are forged. Employers are usually at a loss to know true from false papers.
Workers found to be illegal aliens are fired, but only after they receive three opportunities, progressively more intensive, to prove their legality. Also before termination, they are given 30 days to resolve their problem with the INS. Usually at this stage, they do not show up at work again - and only then are they fired, says Caffie Boothe, who works at the INS project in Washington.
SOMETIMES a case that looks suspicious can end happily. A Cuban man applied for work at GT Bicycles Inc. in Santa Ana. He was offered a job. Because he was not a citizen, he had to document his right to work in the US. But his authorization from the INS had expired.
Virginia Valadez in the firm's human-resources department gave him the benefit of the doubt when he showed his application for an extension. She then checked with INS to see if his overdue authorization was coming. INS wanted yet more information, which she supplied. Finally, the man was authorized to work. Mrs. Valadez walked out to the warehouse and told him.
"He was really happy," she says. He has a wife and two children to take care of, and the firm was sure they had a valuable employee in the man.
When illegal immigrants do lose their jobs, they are not deported, says Ms. Boothe of the INS. If the agency is in touch with them after they lose their jobs, they are offered and usually accept voluntary departure. This qualifies them to apply for immediate legal reentry into the US. Official deportation would prevent them from coming back into the country legally for five years.
Officials cite two reason for the leniency. One is that the INS is so swamped dealing with criminal aliens that it does not have enough agents to round up and deport those found working illegally. The other reason is humanitarian. "We know they came here for a better life," says one INS official.
Critics remain deeply skeptical of the computer checks.
The INS program "will just drive employers who run sweatshops deeper underground," declares Laurie Hoefer, an attorney with the Latino Workers Center in New York. She also warns that the INS computer list could be wrong.
Critics also say that the pilot project could pave the way for use of a national identification card for everyone in America. Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas says that this is not Congress's intent. He compares the mechanics of a check for work eligibility with checks that are done on people's credit cards when they make a purchase in a store.
The legislation would reduce the number of qualifying documents from 29 to six and initiate ways to make such documents more fraud-proof.