Provision in House bill would expand Basic Pilot

The immigration bill expected to begin House debate this week contains a controversial provision that would dramatically expand use of a Homeland Security Department IT program that employers use to verify Social Security numbers for prospective employees.

The IT program, Basic Pilot, is run by Citizenship and Immigration Services and enables electronic searches of a database of Social Security numbers. Created in 1997, it has been used voluntarily by employers to keep from hiring illegal aliens.

Basic Pilot would become mandatory for employers under the immigration reform legislation sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis. The bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last week and is anticipated to move to the floor this week.

Sensenbrenner's bill aims to strengthen immigration and border controls to reduce the chance of terrorists entering and remaining in the country. However, critics warn that huge increase in usage of Basic Pilot would greatly intensify errors and delays and also impose big new costs on businesses.

About 2,300 employers actively used Basic Pilot in fiscal 2004, according to a Government Accountability Office report from August.

Even with such low levels of participation, Basic Pilot demonstrated shortcomings. Weaknesses in the program, such as its inability to detect identity fraud, DHS delays in entering data into databases, and some employer noncompliance with requirements could, if not addressed, have a significant impact on its success, GAO concluded.

Furthermore, GAO confirmed that Basic Pilot is likely unable to handle a large hike in usage.

"CIS officials stated that the Basic Pilot Program may not be able to complete timely verifications if the number of employers using the program significantly increased," GAO said.

Some business executives are protesting expansion of Basic Pilot, because they say it would add new costs and would be subject to errors.

"This legislation will mandate that every employer in the country will have to go through an expanded version of the Basic Pilot experimental program for screening employees," Shawn McBurney, vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said in a news release. McBurney said the proposed screening system is time consuming and "has been flawed on occasion in the past."

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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