Mandatory employment verification seen as privacy threat

Privacy advocates are wary of provisions in federal immigration proposals to mandate an electronic system for employment verification.

A House-passed measure, H.R. 4437, would require all employers to participate in a test program that has been online since 1996. The system lets employers screen the personal information of job applicants against federal databases to determine whether they are eligible to work in the United States. Senate immigration proposals have included similar mandates.

Timothy Sparapani, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the pilot program has been an unmitigated disaster and that none of the current proposals would provide adequate privacy safeguards for a national system.

He said lawmakers have not paid sufficient attention to the ramifications of such a system because the heated debate over amnesty offered to illegal immigrants has "sucked the oxygen" from other critical aspects of the immigration debate. It would be a massive mistake to expand an electronic system that is highly susceptible to identity thieves, Sparapani said.

"This is the piece that all of us are going to have to wrestle with over and over again any time we're trying to get a job, and the time crunch has really limited this debate," he said.

Sparapani was encouraged by the introduction of amendments by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Barack Obama, D-Ill., that he said would "put more flesh and bone" into privacy protections "glossed over" by current proposals.

A report released last August by the Government Accountability Office found a host of weaknesses in the pilot initiative. According to GAO, the program lacks mechanisms to detect identity fraud.

The GAO report also cited a study compiled by Temple University's Institute for Research Studies and Westat that estimated a mandatory version of the program would cost about $11.7 billion per year to maintain.

In a Dec. 13 letter to House lawmakers, AFL-CIO Legislative Director William Samuel noted the weaknesses outlined by the GAO report. Samuel also said the bill's requirements for the system would unfairly burden union hiring halls, labor agencies and nonprofit groups.

But Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said a nationwide employment-verification system is necessary for effective immigration reform. She said the fiscal 2007 budget proposal for $111 million to make the program national would allow for the modernization of the pilot system.

"There needs to be a next-generation version of the pilot program," she said. "There is enough investment to move this project down the road in an ambitious way."

However, Sparapani said he has reservations about the risks of listing more than 160 million workers in a massive government database even if more robust privacy protections are enacted. "I think this is the next step in a national ID system," he said.

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