Immigration reform law to spawn new tech programs

A comprehensive immigration bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday would create several major IT programs to register and verify employment status for foreigners seeking to be residents and workers in the United States.

"There are a lot of IT implications," James Jay Carafano, senior fellow for national security and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, said in an interview today.

The bill, modeled after bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., creates a new foreign guest-worker program for up to 400,000 people a year, who can stay for up to six years.

In a separate provision, it also gives millions of illegal immigrants an opportunity to register and apply to become permanent residents. They also must pay a fine and demonstrate some knowledge of English.

The committee bill also would establish an Employment Eligibility Verification System, a huge database that employers would use to verify whether a prospective worker is here legally.

All three initiatives in the bill, if they become law, would require new, expanded IT programs and integration with existing programs. Senate debate will continue this week.

"They will have to register and record all the biometrics ? that will be enormous ? and they will have to coordinate with the U.S. Visitor Status Indicator Technology," Carafano said. U.S. Visit checks and records the identities of incoming foreign visitors at border ports and airports.

While the foreign worker and illegal immigrant provisions would set up new programs, it was not immediately known whether the legislation would build on the Employment Eligibility Verification System known, as Basic Pilot, or create a new system.

Carafano and others warn against a large expansion of Basic Pilot, which has had high error rates even though it is used by only a few thousand employers.

"It's very problematic. ? I don't think it's scalable," Carafano said.

Basic Pilot is run by Citizenship and Immigration Services and allows 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.

About 2,300 employers used Basic Pilot in fiscal 2004, according to a Government Accountability Office report in August 2005. Its weaknesses include inability to detect identity fraud, delays and employer noncompliance, GAO said. Furthermore, the advisory body confirmed that Basic Pilot is likely unable to handle a large spike in usage.

In recent months, the White House has been promoting a guest-worker plan as a component of immigration reform along with strengthened border security and enforcement. Consideration of the Senate committee bill is expected to continue this week, as senators attempt to reconcile its provisions with S. 2454, drafted by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn.

Frist's bill is similar to House legislation H.R. 4437, approved by the House in December, that beefs up border security and enforcement and sets up employment eligibility verification, but has no guest worker proposal.

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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