THE concept is simple enough. Each time an employer hires somebody, he would call a government hot line to check that person's eligibility to work in the US. One call, one database, one more tool to dissuade illegal immigrants from breaching America's borders.
But with a rewrite of the nation's immigration laws looming in Congress, telephone verification has emerged as a divisive and emotional flash point.
Critics call it burdensome, discriminatory, Orwellian, and a throwback to the era of big government. Supporters say it's the simplest way to dampen the allure, and enormous cost, of illegal immigration. The debate, which has jumbled ideological lines, will force members of Congress to choose between two enormously popular concepts: reducing the size and scope of government and protecting American jobs from foreign interlopers.
''There's a predisposition by some to be distrustful of the government doing this,'' says a staff aide who helped draft the legislation. ''But there's also a very strong public interest in dealing with illegal immigration. Either way, it's a dangerous vote.''
Currently, versions of telephone-verification bills await House and Senate floor debates next month. The House measure would set up a pilot program in five states. After three years, Congress would have to approve the program for nationwide use. The Senate version would automatically extend it nationwide after eight years.
Although they admit it won't thwart every illegal immigrant seeking work in the United States, proponents of the idea say it's far better than doing nothing. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee, explains that illegal immigrants cost billions each year in law enforcement costs, fraudulent welfare benefits, and lost wages.
Of all possible ways to mitigate this crisis, Mr. Smith says, telephone verification is the cheapest and most promising. Beefing up border patrols, he says, does nothing to deter the millions of immigrants who enter the US legally, but overstay their visas. Such trespassers constitute as many as half the nation's 4 million illegal immigrants.
In addition, Mr. Smith says, the pilot program would not create any new database, but simply tap into existing records from the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Nor, he notes, could the databases be used for any other purpose without congressional consent.
The biggest beneficiaries, Smith says, would be law-abiding employers. At present, companies must ask workers to provide proof of legal work status or risk violating the law by hiring an undocumented alien. Since such documents are easy to forge, Smith notes, business owners are forced to behave like detectives, and many Americans are treated with suspicion just because they look as if they might be illegal.
''This system isn't going to eliminate every person who's wrongly trying to work in the United States,'' he says, ''but it's better than what we have today.''
Yet Rep. Steve Chabot (R) of Ohio, a chief critic of telephone verification, has another name for the proposed toll-free number: ''1-800-BIG-BROTHER.''
''Just think,'' he says, ''if this program goes through, every time anybody in America gets a job, their employer has to get the federal government's approval. That's a huge expansion of federal involvement in people's lives.''
Opponents argue that if telephone verification becomes law, demand would increase for a national identification card that could prevent illegal workers from pretending to be somebody else. Although Smith argues that the chances of somebody successfully assuming a different identity are slim, language in the Senate bill would in fact require fingerprints or retina scans to be attached to birth certificates or driver's licenses in the future - a prospect that enrages civil libertarians.
So far, an odd coalition of libertarians, business groups, and liberal organizations has joined Chabot in decrying the plan. Nelson Litterst of the National Federation of Independent Business calls telephone verification ''yet another unwanted mandate'' at a time when smaller government is all the rage.
It would be tremendously inconvenient for small- business owners to spend time on the phone with government bureaucrats, Mr. Litterst says, especially in places where illegal immigrants are few and far between.
''If this was such a great idea,'' asks Stuart Anderson of the CATO Institute in Washington, ''why aren't business groups lining up to lobby in favor of it?''
In addition, Mr. Anderson says, telephone verification would be error-prone. In a pilot program, he contends, 28 percent of inquiries could not be processed on the first try. If 65 million Americans take new jobs each year, he says, ''that amounts to about 13 million hassles a year.''
Those delays, he notes, would only befall employers who play by the rules. Unscrupulous bosses, like sweat-shop owners, would continue to hire illegals without bothering to dial the number. Over time, Anderson predicts, even law-abiding employers would start to use the number only for those they suspect are illegal aliens.