In a letter sent Tuesday to Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the amendment crafted by Finance ranking member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Finance Chairman Baucus and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., "would be a serious step backwards in our enforcement effort."
Chertoff's move sets up a confrontation between two competing models on verifying workers' eligibility.
Grassley, Baucus, and Obama have been working with business and immigrant advocates for months to craft an employment verification system that answers the privacy and workability concerns expressed by various constituency groups.
But the employment verification provisions in the underlying immigration bill are the product of separate negotiations led by Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl of Arizona and Homeland Security. Kyl wants workers to present fraud-proof identification that checks against government databases for work authorization.
Over a year ago, Grassley raised privacy concerns about using individual tax data as part of the process.
Among other things, Chertoff said the Grassley-Baucus-Obama amendment would create "job security for criminal aliens" because it would not require employers to verify the work eligibility of all current workers unless there is evidence to suggest their documentation might be invalid.
Chertoff said illegal workers would be able to "hide in their existing jobs."
As written, the bill would require employers to verify all employees within three years, a mandate that immigration lobbyists and analysts say is almost impossible to meet.
Chertoff listed five other problems with the amendment, including its elimination of a requirement that employees present their employers with a REAL ID-compliant driver's license and a sunset provision on data sharing between the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security.
"In the end, the Grassley-Baucus-Obama amendment unfortunately fuels public skepticism about whether enforcement will work or political forces will frustrate serious efforts to bring employers into compliance with the law," Chertoff's letter said.
In a response sent Wednesday, the sponsors of the amendment challenged each of Chertoff's points. "We are extremely disappointed that your June 19 letter to Sens. Kennedy and Specter contained a number of erroneous and misleading allegations regarding our amendment to Title III," the letter said.
On REAL ID, the Grassley-Baucus-Obama letter said their amendment "avoids opposing an arbitrary deadline" on the licensing law, "in recognition that the final implementation of REAL ID remains in doubt."
On verifying current workers, the senators' letter said those workers already are subject to annual wage reporting, a process under which the SSA can flag mismatches between names and Social Security numbers. Homeland Security also can flag Social Security numbers that are used repeatedly across several locations.
On the sunset provision for data sharing, the senators said that is "standard practice when allowing access to private taxpayer data for the first time for a new purpose."
Moreover, the letter said, data from W-2 forms might become less valuable over time. "Once employers realize their W-2s will be used against them, they may simply stop filing suspect W-2s."
Debate on the immigration bill might not resume until next week, according to a Democratic aide. Friday is the earliest that the first of two cloture votes could take place, but the Senate must first dispense with an energy bill and vote on a union bill before turning to immigration.