Error-prone databases disrupt Basic Pilot

Crucial upgrades planned for widely used program

Employer participation is rapidly increasing in the Homeland Security Department's Employment Eligibility Verification program even though the federal databases used continue to be riddled with errors and have difficulty communicating with each other, according to testimony presented to a House subcommittee on Tuesday.

The 10-year-old program, known as Basic Pilot, is a voluntary program that allows participating employers to check employee credentials against Social Security Administration databases to verify that an employee is eligible to work in the United States. The system was used in 2004 by about 2,300 employers.

The number of participating employers has increased dramatically in recent months, and the department is spending $114 million on upgrades this year, Jonathan R. Scharfen, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.

"In 2006, the number of employers doubled," Scharfen said. "This year the program is growing by over 1,000 employers every month. We project that the 16,000 participating employers will verify over 3 million new hires this fiscal year at more than 71,000 work sites."

Upgrades include incorporating improved data sources into the program, streamlining employer registration, working with SSA to address mismatch issues and beginning to monitor system usage, Scharfen said. About 92 percent of the initial queries in 2006 were approved within three seconds, he said.

However, immigration experts testified at the hearing that the databases continue to have significant errors, creating long wait times and increasing the possibility of job discrimination against would-be employees whose names do not instantly match.

For example, up to 20 percent of initial entries into the system are false negatives, often due to simple errors like entering the last name as the first name or failing to update a married name, Stephen Yale-Loehr, adjunct professor at Cornell University Law School, testified at the hearing.

The Social Security database used for the name checks was not designed for such large-scale checking, and processing times are likely to increase as the number of employers participating increases, Yale-Loehr said. The processing times are especially lengthy for noncitizens, he added.

"Because the DHS and SSA databases are not fully integrated and often have difficulty communicating with each other in an efficient manner, the process can take two weeks or longer for noncitizens. This is simply too long for many employers to wait," Yale-Loehr said.

Marc R. Rosenblum, a fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said false negatives in the system deny employment opportunities to legitimate workers. Those false negatives for various reasons disproportionately affect foreign born U.S. citizens, so there is a possibility of greater discrimination against that group through the use of the employee verification system, he said.

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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