INS/SSA plan draws fire; critics fear federal abuse

A new employment eligibility verification system that the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service plan to test this summer is coming under attack for giving the federal government too much power over its citizens.

A broad spectrum of conservative and liberal groups are opposed to employment verification systems such as the Joint Employment Verification Pilot (JEVP), which government officials hope will crack down on illegal immigration.

Under the JEVP, SSA and INS plan to sign up 25 to 50 employers in Chicago who will use an 800 number to submit a newly hired employee's name, date of birth and Social Security number to verify the Social Security number. If the employee is an immigrant, the employer will call INS' database to verify the worker's alien registration number. SSA plans to have a variety of industries and sizes of companies represented in the pilot.

The JEVP will be tested for about three years. If it proves successful, SSA officials said they would ask Congress to expand the system nationwide.

The JEVP is an expansion of the program INS announced last month to check the work status of immigrants working at meatpacking companies. Under the JEVP, SSA's highly secure databases will be opened for the first time to an outside group, also raising concerns that an individuals' private Social Security data will be vulnerable to hackers and criminals.

More than a dozen meatpacking companies representing 80 percent of the industry's workforce have agreed to participate in the Employment Verification Pilot (EVP), a PC-based system that will allow employers to access INS' database via modem to verify an immigrant's alien registration number. The number is checked only after an applicant is hired and the applicant has indicated on an application form that he is not a U.S. citizen.

The agreement with the meatpacking industry - a magnet for illegal immigrants because of the industry's low-skilled, high-paying jobs - marks the first-ever industrywide agreement with INS to fight the employment of illegal immigrants, and it is a major step toward establishing similar nationwide partnerships with other industries.

By the end of fiscal 1996, INS plans to sign agreements with 1,000 companies that typically attract illegal immigrants.

"This innovative computer-based proj-ect allows employers to verify that they are hiring authorized workers," said INS commissioner Doris Meissner. "This is aimed at stopping the tremendous jobs magnet" for illegal immigrants.

EVP is modeled after the Southern California Verification Pilot, a program INS started last year in Santa Ana, Calif. More than 230 companies there agreed to participate in the pilot. In a seven-month period, area companies checked the alien registration numbers of more than 11,400 immigrants and found that nearly 3,000 did not have the proper legal clearance to work in the United States.

About 40 of those found to have an invalid registration number visited an INS office to appeal the decisions, and about 30 were found to have a legal claim to work.

INS officials acknowledge, however, that EVP has its shortcomings. Only those new hires who say they are not U.S. citizens are checked. Those illegal immigrants who can present documents, such as a Social Security card, that are fraudulent will not be checked.

"Ultimately, we have to have a verification system that checks all people working," Meissner said. "We are working toward that."

The JEVP, which SSA and INS began working on last year, is similar to an employment verification pilot project called for under the Immigration Control and Responsibility Act, which passed the House and Senate and is in conference.

Under those bills, a pilot project to verify Social Security numbers and immigrants' work status would be set up in New York, Illinois, Florida, Texas and California, the five states with the highest number of illegal immigrants.

The House bill would make the system voluntary for employers, but under the Senate bill, employer participation would be mandatory.

Critics Speak Out

But conservative and liberal groups have come together to oppose such systems, on grounds that the verification program is a violation of privacy, imposes mandates on employers and establishes a national identification card that would give too much power to the federal government.

"JEVP is precisely the kind of test run that will lead to a national ID system," said Greg Nojeim, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, Washington, D.C. "It requires the government to maintain a file on every person because it can't anticipate who would fall within the pilot and who wouldn't. There's no way to limit this program."

Ted Jensen, the JEVP program manager in the Office of Systems Requirements at SSA, said, "Nothing in the pilot [tests] has anything to do with a national ID card.

"The administration has just two goals here: Let's keep illegal immigrants from taking jobs, but let's not make life difficult for the citizens or for those employers who choose to be part of the system to check" the validity of employment numbers, he said.

But groups still are poised to oppose the JEVP and similar systems. The National Retail Federation, which represents 1.4 million retailers nationwide, contends that SSA and INS should focus on creating tamper-resistant Social Security and immigration documents rather than developing a system that requires employers to contact SSA and INS to validate a worker's employment status.

The federation plans to "continue to fight that all day long," said Kent Knutson, assistant vice president of legislative affairs.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), who opposed the verification system provision in the House immigration bill because it would require employers to "dial 1-800-BIG-BROTHER," will fight any attempt to make the JEVP a nationwide system.

"Certainly, any bill that would expand this nationwide would be opposed by Congressman Chabot as a vast expansion of the government's power," a Chabot spokesman said.

Some groups, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), oppose verification systems because they fear the accuracy of SSA's databases could lead to the wrongful dismissal of employees and create a number of law suits.

SSA reports that nearly 98 percent of the Social Security numbers in its databases are accurate. But "even 2 percent inaccuracy is a lot of people," said Nelson Litterst, NFIB's legislative representative. "Who's liable for that mistake?"

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