Some employers have reported that Basic Pilot helped them verify work status, but the program is seen as deeply flawed. Not all its computers are linked; in 2004, 15% of queries to the Homeland Security Department had to be entered manually. The program can detect document fraud, but it is blind to identity theft. Borrowing a legal worker's name and Social Security number allows an undocumented worker to sail through the checks.
And to the frustration of immigration enforcement agents, the authorities who manage Basic Pilot do not share information. They say employers might avoid signing up if they knew workplace enforcement officials were watching.
"It's not set up to be an investigative tool," said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It's set up to be a tool for employers. It's an aid to employers as they attempt to verify the employment eligibility of their workers."
Along with the drop in staff numbers has come a decline in employer sanctions. The number of notices of intent to fine issued to companies that knowingly hired an illegal worker or improperly filled out an I-9 form plummeted from 417 in 1999 to three in 2004.
Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, said the drop in such notices was due in part to the realization that they did little to inhibit some firms who "saw them as the cost of doing business."
Instead, the agency is looking for ways to apply criminal charges against rogue employers. Boyd said that arrests of undocumented workers and their employers had risen since 2003, and that the immigration agency was planning to beef up its workplace enforcement efforts. Employers are often charged with money laundering or human smuggling, because a criminal case brings greater penalties.
Officials note that the administration's 2007 budget request allocates $47 million for work-site enforcement and calls for hiring 171 special agents and 35 support staff members.
"We're building workplace enforcement back up and looking to make this a priority," Boyd said.
Some lawmakers want to give enforcement officials access to Social Security data that could indicate which companies probably have a heavy concentration of illegal workers. The Social Security Administration tracks incidents of when tax payments do not correspond to any known taxpayer. But the law bars it from sharing the information.
Still, it is unclear whether Congress will approve the law change, as some lawmakers have worried that the change could weaken taxpayer privacy protections.