Targeting Workers' Phony IDs

INS crackdown foils fake documents but may unfairly target legal minorities.

Twelve years after one of the most sweeping immigration laws in history, efforts to stem the flow of illegals into the United States are foundering on bogus documents and scofflaw businesses.

When Congress first prohibited US employers from hiring illegal immigrants in 1986, it was intended to cut down on the dramatic rise in illegal entries along the US-Mexican border by taking away the migrants' main reason for coming - the lure of jobs in the North. But today most businesses still have no quick way to check the eligibility of people they hire - and many don't want to.

This puts those who do at the mercy of prospective workers, who can present dozens of documents to prove their identities. In an era when the most basic copy machine can churn out real-looking driver's licenses and birth certificates, it can be difficult to tell the fraud from the real Montoya.

But in Texas and four other high-immigration states, federal agencies are now testing a telephone verification program that may give US businesses a chance to abide by the law, and avoid hefty fines. "The problem that immigration officials have always faced is that employers could always say ... these fraudulent papers look real enough to them," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group in Washington. "Not only does this make it difficult for the feds to crack down on undocumented workers, it provides a screen for crooked employers who routinely hire illegal immigrants."

But if you think the solution is to create a tamperproof national identification card, as found in many European and Asian nations, guess again. Opposed by both civil libertarians and social conservatives alike, a national ID card has long been portrayed as a threat to privacy, with overtones of Big Brother. As a result, federal immigration officials are testing a less-controversial - and some say flawed - approach of using a telephone call to cross-match employees' names against their Social Security numbers.

Why the crackdown

Immigration is growing at a rate unseen in almost 80 years. While 1 million immigrants enter the US legally each year, more than 5 million others arrive illegally, more than half of those from Mexico. The US Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has responded to this illegal tide in the past five years by doubling the size of its Border Patrol and, more recently, by conducting worksite raids in places such as hotels and meatpacking and poultry plants, where many undocumented people work.

If all goes well at the 950 employer test sites in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and New York, employers may, for the first time, get their immigration questions answered quickly. "We realized that companies have difficulty distinguishing real and fraudulent documents," says Cassie Booth, a spokeswoman for the INS in Washington. "This takes the guesswork out of it."

INS officials are quick to note that the verification is not meant to screen out prospective workers, but rather be a double-check for those already hired. Businesses call in the workers' identifying information. If the name and number don't match, the employer must send the employee to the Social Security office, and later, the INS office, to have the error corrected - if it can be.

One company that praises the new pilot verification system is the Texas restaurant chain owned by Pappas Partners of Houston.

"We feel very comfortable that if the Social Security Administration gives the go-ahead, this person is OK," says Julie Pastel, director of human resources at Pappas' Houston headquarters.

Like many participants in the pilot program, Pappas Partners came to appreciate the benefits of verification only after being busted. Last year, after repeated INS raids, the restaurant chain admitted to hiring, shielding, and hiding undocumented kitchen staff. One restaurant even hid an employee in a false ceiling during raids. In its court settlement, the Pappas chain paid a record $1.5 million fine.

Forced firings

In some states, the INS is taking a more aggressive approach. Rather than arresting and deporting illegals - a lengthy and costly process - agents are now raiding businesses and forcing management to fire anyone found using fake documents. This fate befell the Caribbean Gulf Resort in Clearwater Beach, Fla., this past June, which was forced to terminate one-third of its staff.

Such a tough approach has its critics. Latino civil-rights leaders, in particular, have charged that a crackdown will disproportionately target Hispanics, even those who reside in the US legally. "We've had concerns because of the margin of error in any identification system and who is going to be impacted the most - ethnic minorities," says Cynthia Cano, a lawyer for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Antonio.

Many Hispanics carry two surnames - one from their father, another from their mother. That means drivers licenses and immigration records may bear different names for the same individual. Critics say, too, that the database system may have glitches, such as a typographical error, which could cause hardship for those accused of forging documents.

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