House Immigration Bill Drops Basic Pilot Program In Favor of Biometric Identification

By Staff Report

Mar. 23, 2007

Immigration reform officially kicked off on Capitol Hill on Thursday (March 22) with a potential setback to the electronic verification system that the government is trying to get companies to adopt.

Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, offered the first piece of major immigration legislation in the new Congress.

Their comprehensive measure would strengthen border security, increase work-site enforcement, allow 400,000 low-skill workers into the country annually, make it easier for high-skill immigrants to obtain green cards and establish a path to legalization for illegal aliens that requires them to leave the U.S. and return.

Unlike previous immigration legislation, however, the employment verification piece of the Gutierrez-Flake bill does not revolve around the Basic Pilot electronic system that is run by the Department of Homeland Security.

Instead, the bill, dubbed the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act, would establish a biometric verification system, according to Flake.

Each U.S. worker would possess a card—perhaps a secure driver’s license or Social Security card—containing a data-bank-linked proof of his or her identity that could be scanned by a machine.

This kind of system likely would obviate the need for Basic Pilot. About 15,000 companies are currently participating in the voluntary program. Under last year’s immigration bills, which died when the congressional term ended, U.S. employers would have been required to sign up.

The Basic Pilot system has been criticized as inefficient, ineffective and too weak to support use by all 7 million U.S. employers. The Bush administration, which touts it as the switch for turning off the jobs magnet that attracts illegal worker, says the program is improving rapidly. About 50 new employers are signing up each day.

Flake, however, is unimpressed. “We get rid of Basic Pilot,” he said following a press conference on March 22. “It may work on a small scale, but DHS hasn’t convinced us that it can work on a broad scale.”

Five major human resource organizations also have raised concerns about Basic Pilot.  The groups, led by the Society for Human Resource Management, launched the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce in early March to help shape the employer verification portion of the immigration debate.

A major worry about Basic Pilot stems from a December DHS raid on six Swift & Co. meat processing facilities in which 1,282 people were arrested for immigration violations. Despite Swift’s use of the verification system, it became the target of enforcement because illegal workers stole identities to pose as eligible applicants. The Swift raid is part of DHS’ increased enforcement emphasis.

“The problem with Basic Pilot is that it doesn’t combat identity fraud,” Flake says. “We need a machine-readable biometric identifier for each worker.”

Although scrapping Basic Pilot could be good news to the business community, no one is celebrating just yet. As of March 22, the 700-page bill had not been released. Corporate lobbyists, while pleased that comprehensive reform has gotten the debate under way, cautioned that they haven’t parsed the bill.

“We’re going to be going over [verification] with a fine-toothed comb,” says John Gay, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the National Restaurant Association. “We really want to study that carefully because it’s critical we get that right.”

The idea of a biometric card could run into trouble on a number of different fronts. Many groups involved in the immigration debate have objected to such an approach because it can be enormously expensive, overburden the Social Security system, fall victim to document fraud and raise the specter of a government database of biometrics.

The HR initiative promotes the use of biometrics for verification. But it proposes implementing a system in which workers register their biometric information—and key identifier questions—with private firms. Companies could then check those databases for employment eligibility.

It may take months to work out the details of verification. For now, though, the important achievement for immigration proponents is that a comprehensive bill has been introduced in the House.

Last year, the conservative Republican House majority passed a bill that focused solely on border security and workplace enforcement. That bill was never reconciled with comprehensive Senate legislation because of political stalemate in advance of the fall elections.

In November, voters ousted the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. With Democratic leadership now in both houses, observers think the chances have improved for comprehensive reform.

But political obstacles remain. Many conservative Democrats share some of the same qualms with their Republican counterparts about a path to legalization. And the Senate hasn’t yet produced a bill, although it can start with the comprehensive measure it passed last year.

Still, observers say there is measurable immigration momentum—in large part because the Bush administration is working hard behind the scenes to promote comprehensive reform.

“They like a lot of what’s in this bill,” Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Illinois, says of administration reaction to the Gutierrez-Flake bill.

Flake himself is optimistic. “The planets are finally aligning to get this done,” he says.

The business community also is heartened that comprehensive legislation has launched the immigration debate.

“This is a great day to focus on a bill that has the big picture right and sets the stage for Congress to take action,” Gay says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.


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