An 8-year-old federal program that permits employers to use the Internet to instantly verify prospective hires’ legal eligibility to work in the U.S. is being used by less that 1/10 of 1 percent of the nation’s companies because it is voluntary, under-publicized and puts its users at a competitive disadvantage to firms who continue to hire illegal workers.

The Basic Employment Verification Pilot Program, first begun in 1997 in California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and New York, because of their high numbers of illegal aliens, was extended last year through 2008 and expanded to all 50 states. The free and voluntary program lets employers register online and, after self-training with a brief tutorial, input information on newly-hired employees that is quickly verified by checks against databases at the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security.

Since 1986, when Congress made it illegal for companies to knowingly hire undocumented workers, employers have been caught in a Catch-22 – not knowing with certainty if the documents provided by the employee were genuine and not wanting to be sued for discrimination in hiring. The employment verification program was designed to fill that gap, and, according to the minority of employers using it, it does the job well.

“I have an answer back within a minute,” Martin Thompson, vice president for human resources at Bar-S Foods Co., a Phoenix-based meat-processing firm told the Arizona Republic. The company has been able to participate in the program since 1998 because some of its 1,500 employees are in California and Texas.

Increasingly, the debate over immigration is raising the role employers play by providing the jobs to illegals. As reported by WorldNetDaily, the Minuteman Project is expanding its activities to include monitoring of employers who hire undocumented workers.

Last week, anti-illegal immigration demonstrators turned out in Tennessee calling for $25,000 fines against employers who willingly hire illegals.

“We have become a magnet for illegal aliens,” said radio talk show host Phil Valentine who spearheaded the turnout. “We’re wanting to demagnetize Tennessee, (but) it’s all about passing comprehensive laws on a state level so we don’t attract illegal aliens anymore. If we cut off the reason of them coming, they’ll stop coming. We can talk about deporting and arresting, but until you address why they’re coming, you’re never going to solve the problem.”

Because the law only requires employers to check documents, but not determine their authenticity, illegals have continued to be hired using fraudulent papers – and employers have been able to plead ignorance.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were 7 million undocumented workers in the U.S. last year – 55 percent of whom were hired using documents with fabricated or stolen Social Security numbers, according to the Center for Immigration Studies.

The government’s web-based employment verification program could seriously reduce those numbers, say those who want the program mandatory.

“If it’s applied to everyone, all the businesses would be on an even playing field,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., research organization that favors tighter limits on immigration.

“That’s the real problem with this,” adds Thompson, of Bar-S. “If a person is illegal and doesn’t have the proper documents, then they just go down the road to the next employer.”

Nationally, only 4,385 companies of the 5.7 million counted by the U.S. Census are using the program, says Chris Bentley, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – less that 1/10 of 1 percent of all employers.

According to Denver immigration lawyer Ann Allott, there haven’t been many incentives for employers to use the voluntary system. The law only lets the IRS fine companies up to $400 per year for each employee whose name doesn’t match his or her social security number. Only businesses where more than 10 percent of the work force has discrepancies between names and numbers are contacted by Social Security. Follow up is even more spotty, Allott told the Denver Post.

In Arizona, the number of businesses fined for immigration violations dropped from 909 to 124 between 1995 and 2003, despite the rising influx of illegal aliens.

One Denver corporation that runs a group of restaurants found the motivation to begin using the employment verification program after one of its employees – an illegal alien – killed a policeman last month. The business, partly owned by Denver’s mayor had received notice last year of 107 people working in its restaurants – roughly 1 in 7 employees – with Social Security numbers that didn’t match their names.

Despite the competitive disadvantage, Bar-S intends to keep verifying documents, if only to avoid potentially costly audits by federal immigration inspectors. Already, word of the company’s use of the program has spread, with fewer illegal workers applying for employment.

“Less than 8 percent of the time we will find someone where the computer kicks them back,” says Thompson. That’s a reduction from the 30 percent Bar-S was seeing in 1998 when it first started the program.

But if others decide to join Bar-S, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services may not be ready. On its website, the agency warns: “If significantly more employers than anticipated choose to participate in the Basic Pilot Program, USCIS may have to limit the number of participants.”

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