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INS Tests Plan to Block Jobs for Illegal Workers : Immigration: Pilot project involves 200 Southland firms. Computer tie-in will show employees' status.


SANTA ANA — In the controversial first test of what could become a national model, U.S. authorities Tuesday unveiled a long-awaited program that will initially allow more than 200 Southern California companies to use a computer tie-in to verify whether new employees are legally authorized to work in the United States.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner called the pilot project a major breakthrough toward developing broad, nationwide work-site verification--a longtime goal of authorities seeking to curtail job opportunities that encourage illicit immigration. The proliferation of false documents has allowed millions to circumvent a 1986 law prohibiting employment of illegal immigrants.

"Most illegal immigrants come here for jobs, so we have to look to the workplace," said Meissner, who outlined the pilot project during a news conference at a Santa Ana bicycle factory, one of the area employers that have signed up for the verification plan.

The Clinton Administration--eager to appear aggressive on the immigration issue in this pre-election year, particularly in California--is stressing work-site enforcement as a necessary adjunct to its much ballyhooed buildup along the U.S.-Mexico border. The pilot project, to be accompanied by increased visits by INS agents to work sites, will focus on two communities, Santa Ana and the City of Industry, where many illegal immigrants have found work.

"You have to bolster border enforcement by reducing the availability of jobs; otherwise pressure will just build up at the border again," Meissner said during a meeting at The Times after her Santa Ana appearance.

Rights advocates immediately expressed alarm at the plan, which they say is of dubious constitutionality, may violate privacy rights and is likely to increase discrimination against all immigrants--and against any job-seekers who appear to be foreign-born. Several critics categorized the project as a first step in an incremental push toward the introduction of a national identification system, or even a mandatory ID card--which civil libertarians on the left and right consider an Orwellian anathema.

"The whole world is watching this system to see if the INS will be able to take it nationwide to become a Big Brother verification system for the whole country," said Charles Wheeler, directing attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, a Los Angeles-based legal services organization.

Said Lucas Guttentag of the American Civil Liberties Union: "This is the INS' Halloween trick or treat."

A likely result of the new system, civil rights advocates said, is that employers would illegally use the process to pre-screen potential workers. Under anti-discrimination laws, employers are supposed to verify workers' status only after they have been hired.

The verification initiative is emerging as calls are mounting in Congress for implementation of some kind of broad system to detect and ferret out illegal immigrants in the workplace, especially in California, home to up to half of the nation's more than 4 million illegal immigrants, many of them employed.

Meissner acknowledged that authorities hope to expand the pilot program to about 1,000 employers by next year. But she said that any plan to proceed with a national identification system--such as a universal ID card or registry of eligible employees--could not go forward without congressional authorization.

The Clinton Administration is opposed to a national ID card and is seeking to move ahead on verification before a congressional decision on a national registry. A registry would require years to assemble and cost billions of dollars to prepare--while raising strong privacy concerns.

"Nothing can happen that requires all employers to take action unless Congress authorizes it," said Meissner, who stressed that employers in the pilot project were participating voluntarily.

The overall enforcement strategy, the commissioner said, is to focus in on the small minority of the nation's more than 7 million employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, often at sub-minimum wages. Complete verification allows legitimate employers to hire only those here legally, thus allowing agents to zero in on sweatshops and other violators.

"Most businesses in this country want to hire lawful workers," Meissner said, "but they have faced obstacles in trying to comply with the law."

Technological advances have just now allowed the INS to introduce the almost fully automated system, which officials called a much more sophisticated version of a previous telephone verification project involving nine employers nationwide.

Under the new system--launched in Southern California because it is the locus of the illegal immigration problem, one INS official said--participating employers use computers and a softwareprogram to tap into an INS-generated database and verify whether non-citizens are authorized to work.

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