Plan Would Keep More Illegal Immigrants From Jobs

Plan would keep more illegal immigrants from jobs

By Nate Jenkins
The Associated Press, August 5, 2008

Lincoln (AP) — A top immigration official in President Bush's administration said federal agencies are working on an agreement that could make it tougher for illegal immigrants to get jobs.

An agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement could take advantage of the increasing capabilities of a widely used but flawed computer system used to pinpoint illegal immigrants when they apply for jobs, said Jock Scharfen, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

He spoke to reporters after visiting the Nebraska Service Center in Lincoln on Tuesday. The center processes citizenship applications for 20 states and for military personnel nationwide.

Illegal immigrants are often able to trick the so-called E-Verify computer system, which is used voluntarily by businesses, by using false identification. The identification often belongs to someone else, but because the identification itself is valid, the computer system doesn't alert employers.

But Scharfen said the system is close to being able to alert employers when Social Security numbers provided to them by job applicants are being used at other businesses a possible sign the prospective hires are illegal immigrants using bought or stolen identification.

The use of bought or stolen identification has long been a problem for employers conscientious about not hiring illegal immigrants.

'We have the capacity to do it,' Scharfen said of using E-verify to find out whether identification is being used at other businesses.

'The hard part is deciding how we work with ICE,' Scharfen said. 'What cases do we refer to ICE?'

'How do we do the enforcement side of it?'

Employment of illegal immigrants re-emerged as a hot issue in the state recently when the Fremont City Council voted down a proposal that would have banned renting to, harboring and hiring illegal immigrants. A public hearing on the proposal a week ago drew more than 1,000 people.

For U.S. immigration reform to work, employers have to share responsibility, Scharfen said.

As long as there is a 'magnet of unlawful employment opportunities' in the U.S., tougher border control alone won't produce comprehensive immigration reform, he said.

While debate over illegal immigration rages on, the backlog of citizenship applications has been a major focus of the agency Scharfen was appointed to oversee in April.

The Nebraska center and the handful of others like it across the country have strained to keep up with a flood of citizenship applications made by immigrants. A main reason for the influx of applications and resulting backlog was immigrants trying to beat the July 2007 start date of a steep increase in application fees.

The citizenship application pipeline has also been plugged in recent years by long delays in FBI background checks required after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Scharfen said that a better working plan with the FBI, along with more money from the fees and an infusion of millions more from Congress, has helped reduce the backlog. The money has helped the agency hire more people and switch from a paper-based system to more modern one.

Last month, processing of all citizenship naturalization applications older than three years was completed and by the end of November all cases more than a year old should be finished, Scharfen said.

Lincoln immigration attorney Brent Wolzen said one reason for the smaller backlog is that immigration officials are not starting the application process until the FBI checks are completed.

For much of the time since 2001, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been 'waiting for the FBI to do background checks, and the FBI is under the Department of Justice so they've just been blaming each other back and forth,' Wolzen said.

Wolzen said one of his clients is a doctor in Houston who has been waiting eight years for his green card when it should just take a year.

Scharfen said that with changes made in the agency, it should take on average about 14 months to process naturalization applications.