Work bill would create new ID database

Senate takes up draft legislation creating massive Homeland Security database that would say "yes" or "no" to an employee's eligibility to work.

The U.S. Congress is poised to create a set of massive new government databases that all employers must use to investigate the immigration status of current and future employees or face stiff penalties.

The so-called Employment Eligibility Verification System would be established as part of a bill that senators began debating on Monday, a procedure that is likely to continue through June and would represent the most extensive rewrite of immigration and visa laws in a generation. Because anyone who fails a database check would be out of a job, the proposed database already has drawn comparisons with the "no-fly list" and is being criticized by civil libertarians and business groups.

All employers--at least 7 million, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce--would be required to verify identity documents provided by both existing employees and potential hires, the legislation says. The data, including Social Security numbers, would be provided to Homeland Security, on penalty of perjury, and the government databases would provide a work authorization confirmation within three business days.

There is no privacy requirement that the federal government delete the information after work authorization is given or denied. Employers would be required to keep all the documentation in paper or electronic form for seven years "and make it available for inspection by officers of the Department of Homeland Security" and the Department of Labor. It would also open up the IRS' databases of confidential taxpayer information to Homeland Security and its contractors.

Even parents who hire nannies might be covered. The language in the bill, called the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act (PDF), defines an employer as "any person or entity hiring, recruiting, or referring an individual for employment in the United States" and does not appear to explicitly exempt individuals or small businesses. (Its Senate sponsors did not immediately respond on Monday to queries on this point.)

"All the problems that are attendant to the no-fly list are going to be a problem for a nationwide employment eligibility verification system."
--Timothy Sparapani, senior legislative counsel, ACLU

Backers of the proposal, including the Bush administration and many members of Congress, argue the changes to U.S. law are necessary to combat fraud and to ensure employees are truly eligible to work in the United States. According to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, about 7.2 million undocumented immigrants were working in the United States as of March 2005.

"This bill brings us closer to an immigration system that enforces our laws and upholds the great American tradition of welcoming those who share our values and our love of freedom," President Bush said in his radio address on Saturday.

But the federal government's hardly stellar track record in keeping its databases accurate and secure is prompting an outcry over the verification system. Opponents argue that errors could unwittingly shut out millions of Americans who are actually eligible to work in the United States.

"All the problems that are attendant to the no-fly list are going to be a problem for a nationwide employment eligibility verification system," said Timothy Sparapani, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "And that's because the government as a rule is terrible about setting up massive data systems and then conditioning peoples' exercises of rights and privileges on the proper functioning of these databases."

Supporters of a federal verification requirement argue that some states, including North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, Idaho and Arizona, already require employers to engage in some sort of verification--but Sparapani says they're far less extensive and intrusive.

One well-known example of buggy federal databases can be found in the no-fly list, which is intended to keep known terrorists off commercial airplanes. But it's flagged many other people, including Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), for questioning at security checkpoints.

In 1996, Congress enacted a related law colloquially known as the "deadbeat dad database," that required employers to report new hires to the federal government. But unlike the current proposal, the new-hire database did not have the ability to deny employment authorization.

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