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INS Test Gives Quick Results for Food Firm

September 07, 1993|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

El Gallo Giro is the envy of many businesses in Southern California, and it's not just because of the lines at the cash registers or the quality of the tamales.

In five minutes flat, Human Resources Director Olivia Garcia can check a batch of immigration work permits using a device that can tell immediately if the card numbers match those in the government's computers.

For employers besieged by phony green cards, the system could be a godsend in trying to keep illegal immigrants off their payrolls. But El Gallo is the only business in California--one of only nine in the nation--allowed to participate in the pilot project, now in its second year of an indefinite test period.

In the meantime, employers are trying to cope with the requirements of immigration laws that make verifying a new hire's employability a tricky task. They are required to see certain proof of identification, such as a U.S. passport or a green card, but they are forbidden to ask for more ID than the law requires.

And at a time when phony green cards sell for $25 on the streets of Santa Ana and Los Angeles, legitimate employers are forced to walk a sometimes costly tightrope between unknowingly hiring those with phony documents or discriminating against applicants by rejecting them based only on suspicion.

That's why the setup at El Gallo Giro sounds so good to them.

A little box sitting in the chain's employment office in Huntington Park connects El Gallo Giro directly with the computers of the Immigration & Naturalization Service in Washington. El Gallo is only one of nine employers around the country that are being allowed to test the Telephone Verification System.

Garcia estimates that she used the verification system hundreds of times in order to keep the employment ranks filled at El Gallo, a 300-worker takeout Mexican food chain with stores in Huntington Park, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and South El Monte.

Now, she said, "you could probably input 10 names (and receive results) in five minutes."

Other companies, like sneaker maker Vans Inc. in Orange, are clamoring for a chance to join the system that so far remains limited to the few firms in the pilot project. "It's a great, great program," said a Vans official, who is hoping that the computer linkup could eventually help ensure that all employees are legal.

The INS also has high hopes that the system could relieve employers of the guessing game that they now face when presented with various kinds of INS cards that can be used for proof of work eligibility.

The test is "a big success," said INS spokesman Duke Austin in Washington. Of 2,280 inquiries from employers during the first year of the test, the system flagged 191, or 8.4%, as having some sort of problem.

But Austin said the system isn't foolproof. Criminals bent on passing fake documents will still be able to get around the system by presenting cards it is not equipped to process.

And lawyers who advise employers on immigration law say the system is only as good as INS' database and employees who operate it. "It's only as good as the guy at the end of the line who keys it in," said Peter Larrabee, a San Diego attorney and former Border Patrol agent who specializes in advising lawyers on immigration law. There have also been high error rates in some INS databases, he said.

El Gallo's Garcia has no complaints. Since job seekers are told their INS cards will be checked, those who might be trying to pass fraudulent documents are unlikely to apply. There have been only three instances in which numbers weren't validated since the test began in March, 1992, from among the dozen or more cards checked every week, Garcia said.

In cases in which the machine could not validate the authenticity of the card, the name and number are sent for another check to a local INS office. If there is still a problem, the employee is sent to the INS office to resolve the holdup.

Other employers, lacking the automated system, are frustrated.

Some employers, notably in the construction and garment industries, openly flaunt the law and demonstrate the need for tough enforcement, authorities say. But those trying to comply with law say they are perplexed by the Catch-22 that makes them dupes for phony IDs, yet prevents them from demanding more proof.

"We think it is an untenable position that (employers) are put in. They should not be serving as INS officers. . . . They are caught between a rock and hard place. But the worst part is, the damn law isn't working," said Mario Moreno, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund in Washington, one of the civil rights groups that want to abolish employer sanctions.

Legalized immigrant workers have become caught in the same snare. Some employers, fearful of an INS investigation, reject prospective employees simply because they are foreign-born. Others illegally demand to see more identification than the law requires, or reject the authenticity of acceptable documents.

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