At the heart of any immigration bill that makes it through the heated congressional debates is likely to be a computerized system that could help employers determine instantly whether someone can legally work in this country.
A voluntary version of the Internet-based system has been up and running on an experimental basis since 1996 and now includes more than 5,000 companies nationwide. Democrats and Republicans alike — including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. — have included expanded versions in every bill now under serious consideration.
President Bush's budget request calls for adding $115 million to the program's current budget of $20 million to make it mandatory across the country. The spending also includes a system that will eventually check the immigration status of applicants for driver's licenses and other benefits.
Immigration expert Kevin Jernegan, who wrote a report last year on the pilot program for the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, called such a system central to immigration reform. Under a 1986 federal law, employers can be punished for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, but very few are penalized.
"Right now there's a loophole, because you have to show that employers knowingly hired an illegal worker, and how do you prove that without a reliable system?" Jernegan said.
Under the pilot program, employers can check the applicant's picture ID and Social Security card or work permit against federal databases with a few clicks of a mouse.
The system is linked to companies' records so employers cannot add employees to the payroll — be they janitors or CEOs — until the check is completed.
Department of Homeland Security employees conduct manual searches for applicants who are not automatically given the OK. Those still not cleared can contact the government to sort out the problem.
Alsco, a company that supplies uniforms and linens to the government, is among the businesses participating in the pilot program.
Tony Brown, head of human resources for Alsco's western Florida division, said before the company joined the program in 2004, staff members wasted a lot of time trying to verify the status of employees.
"We would contact the Social Security Administration, and either the numbers wouldn't match or the number matched 25 others," he said.
The pilot program allows his staff to verify the status of most prospective employees within minutes.
In the past two years, he said, his office ran 431 inquiries, 17 of which were flagged. Nearly half of those flagged eventually were cleared and hired.
Brown said the use of the program — which requires the company to post a sign alerting applicants it may run their names through Homeland Security databases — has been accompanied by a slight decrease in applications.
"Once they see that you're about to put that through the program, they will say, `Just stop' or that they want to withdraw their application," Brown said.
The idea of such a program has long been tossed around. But businesses and civil rights groups argued that it would be too cumbersome for employers and would violate the privacy of American citizens and legal immigrants. And some employers resent such screening, saying they need illegal immigrants to fill out their work forces.
Former Immigration Commissioner Doris Meissner said that sentiment is changing. When Congress first passed a law in 1986 holding employers responsible for checking whether their employees were documented, Americans were much more wary of any kind of electronic registration, she said.
"But now people use credit cards over the Internet and do banking online. Americans are much more accustomed with the things that would be needed today for the program," she said. Also, she said Sept. 11 has affected what kind of scrutiny Americans are willing to undergo.
The key challenge remains how to expand the pilot program to cover the country's roughly 7 million employers.
Currently the government contracts out the initial screening to Computer Sciences Corp., which charges up to 52 cents per inquiry. Five government staffers conduct the follow-up manual checks, with about 40 others pulled in as needed.
In the past six months, the program ran 662,000 inquiries, with about 21,000 requiring a second manual check, said Gerry Ratliff, who heads Homeland Security's status verification office.
If the program becomes mandatory, employers nationwide will probably run an estimated 57 million new hires a year through the system, she said.
Ratliff said her department is gearing up for an expansion. The department estimated it will need only 34 more status verifiers.
Some experts say that will not be nearly enough to run the program and enforce it. They worry that a lack of staff could hurt legal immigrants, whose visa status often changes faster than Homeland Security can update its databases and whose double surnames can trip up the system.
"It doesn't look like it's being taken seriously enough for the amount of resources you need to do it," Jernegan said.