At IBP, a meat-packing company in Dakota City, Neb., managers are in a bind whenever they need to hire more workers.
The industry has long attracted hordes of immigrant workers, many of them illegal.
"We want to abide by the law," says company spokesman Gary Mickelson. But the law says both not to hire illegals and to avoid discrimination in hiring.
IBP spends $3,000 or more to recruit and train a production-line worker, only to lose the employee if the person is later found to be ineligible to work.
Now IBP may get to spot the illegal workers much more quickly, providing jobs to eligible workers and saving the company money.
In a voluntary test program, encompassing most of the meat-packing industry as well as other employers nationwide, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service will do computer checks on eligibility for the firms.
The program, announced by the INS in May, is an expansion of a controversial pilot project in California. Since its inception last October, about 11,500 new hires have been checked - and 25 percent of them found to be illegal. The INS began the pilot project in two southern California communities - Santa Ana and nearby City of Industry - known to attract many illegal aliens.
The project draws fire from civil libertarians and other critics, who see it as a step toward big-brother government intrusion.
But political pressure, these days, is on the side of enforcement. The high proportion of illegal immigrants seeking work in Santa Ana shows why, especially in California, the issue is so hot.
In many cases illegal immigrants, drawn by the American "job magnet," compete for work directly against American workers, argues Harvard University economist George Borjas, who has researched the issue extensively. This reduces economic opportunity for the least-skilled US citizens, he says.
Congress is moving to satisfy public demand for a solution to illegal immigration. Republicans plan to present President Clinton with a major bill on reforming illegal immigration. Mr. Clinton is expected to sign the bill, unless Congress includes a measure allowing states to prevent the children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools.
Both Senate and House bills authorize test programs for businesses similar to what the INS has been doing. The Senate version would make the procedure mandatory for employers; the INS says more voluntary testing and development is needed before taking that step.
Business groups refrain from blanket endorsement of the INS computer checks.
"Any increase in regulation can have pitfalls," says Cherae Bishop, a human-resources official at the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. "What if the INS says a worker is not eligible and he is - can the INS be held accountable?"
The INS, however, is stepping up raids at work-sites to uncover violations, which provides some firms with an incentive to cooperate in the pilot project.
The broadened test will include 1,000 employers, up from 233 California firms initially.
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.
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.