IN her office off the main warehouse floor at GT Bicycles here, Virginia Valadez is a willing guinea pig in a program that could become a national model for illegal immigration control.
The human-resource manager types information from a job application - name, date of birth, hiring date, and her employer access code - into a desktop computer.
Within seconds, she receives one of two responses: employee authorized or more verification needed.
''I love this system,'' says Ms. Valadez. ''Now I don't have to be responsible for whether or not these people are legal. I don't have to be a watchdog.''
After boosting the number of agents and providing an arsenal of high-tech equipment for them on the United States-Mexico border last year, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service is now initiating controversial new efforts to target illegal immigrants in the workplace.
For the first time, the INS is donating computer programs that screen workers by connecting employers to a national database. It is intended to help verify workers' documents - long one of the Achilles' heels of government efforts to discourage businesses from hiring illegals.
But critics of the pilot program say the INS is overstepping its bounds. They charge that the immigration agency is compromising immigrant rights and allowing the federal government too much control over people's lives.
''Whenever Americans get nervous about holding onto their jobs, they start lashing out at immigrants in the workplace,'' says Lucas Guttentag, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrant Rights Project.
''This is more evidence of creeping Big Brotherism in the US government.... It's the first step toward a national registry, then required ID cards,'' he says.
But as some 3-1/2 million illegal immigrants have poured over the US-Mexico border in the last decade, illegal employees have become a growing concern. Roughly 300,000 illegal immigrants slipped past guards on the border last year alone.
The concerns are especially high in California, home to half of the nation's more than 4 million illegal immigrants. In a drive to win support for a ballot referendum that would deny government benefits to illegal immigrants last year, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) spotlighted a startling statistic: The number of illegals entering California each year is equal to the population of a city the size of Oakland.
Monitoring by modem
The information that Ms. Valadez enters into the computer here in Orange County is checked against the INS Alien Status Verification Index database via modem to Washington, D.C. If the need-more-verification notice appears on Valadez's screen, it is a signal that the primary INS database has not recognized the employee as eligible and that the INS must search other data sources with a longer response time.
If no other verification is determined by Valadez or the INS within 30 days, the employee is fired.
The pilot project initially will allow more than 200 Southern California companies to link up with INS computers to verify whether new employees are legally authorized to work in the US.
INS Commissioner Doris Meissner, who outlined the project at a news conference here two weeks ago, called the idea a major breakthrough in developing nationwide workplace verification. The Clinton administration has long stressed work-site enforcement as a way to reinforce increased efforts along the US-Mexican border.
''Most illegal immigrants come here for jobs, so we have to look to the workplace,'' Ms. Meissner says. In addition to the computer checks, INS agents will beef up their visits to workplaces here and in the nearby City of Industry, where high concentrations of illegals are said to work. Meissner hopes to expand the program to 1,000 employers by next year.
''You have to bolster border enforcement by reducing the number of jobs. Otherwise pressure will just build up at the border again,'' she added.
But critics claim the program could unfairly tag legal immigrants as illegal aliens. Key among concerns, Guttentag and others say, is that the computers and databases will get crucial information wrong.
''We are concerned about the error rates that could knock out tens of thousands of immigrants who are properly documented,'' says Bobbi Murray, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
She cites a study the INS conducted using 12 Southern California employers to verify employee status in a similar manner that showed an error rate of 28 percent.
''Even by their own figures, you have an unruly, Kafka-esque system, knocking people out of the box for unknown reasons,'' Ms. Murray says.
The bad old days
INS officials counter that the secondary verification step protects employees who are eligible noncitizens from being unjustly fired.
Searching via computer also reduces the time required to determine if a prospective employee is authorized to work. In the past, verifications were done on paper and transported by mail, resulting in response times that could take weeks. With the new system, even secondary verification can take as few as three days, INS officials say.
INS officials say the new system is an effective, low-cost method of strengthening immigration oversight without having to proceed with a national identification system such as a universal identification card or a registry of eligible employees, which would require an act of Congress. The Clinton administration is opposed to a national ID card, which would take years to assemble and cost billions of dollars, in addition to raising privacy concerns.
The INS admits, however, that the new program, begun Oct. 31, is not foolproof. INS officials concede one missing component is a way to verify workers' Social Security numbers, which are known to be widely falsified. That step, officials say, is in the works.