Getting Input From the INS : Employers Praise Pilot Program That Allows Them to Tap Into Government Computers to Verify Applicants

TIMES STAFF WRITER

El Gallo Giro is the envy of many businesses in Southern California--and not because of the lines at the cash registers or the quality of the tamales.

In five minutes flat, Olivia L. Garcia-Patino, human resources director of the fast-food chain, is able to check a batch of immigration work permits by using a device that can tell immediately if the card numbers match those in the government's computers.

The system could be a godsend to employers besieged with phony green cards and struggling to keep illegal immigrants off the payroll. But El Gallo is the only business in California--and one of only nine in the nation--participating in the pilot project, now in the second year of an indefinite test period.

In the meantime, employers try to cope with immigration law requirements that make it tricky to verify a new hire's eligibility. A business is required to see certain proof of identification, such as a U.S. passport or a green card, but is forbidden to ask for more ID than the law requires.

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

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

A little box sitting in the chain's employment office in Huntington Park connects El Gallo Giro directly with the computers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington. Garcia-Patino enters the identification number from a job applicant's INS documents--typically some form of resident alien ID--and receives back either confirmation that the number is genuine or warning of a problem.

She estimates that she has used the INS' Telephone Verification System hundreds of times as she hires workers for El Gallo, a 300-worker takeout Mexican food chain with outlets in Huntington Park, Los Angeles, Santa Ana and South El Monte.

Other companies, including sneaker maker Vans Inc. in Orange, are clamoring for a chance to join the system. "It's a great, great program," said an official at the shoe company, whose factory was raided in January by busloads of immigration agents enforcing the employer sanctions provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

The INS itself has high hopes that the system will relieve employers of the guessing game they now face when presented with the various documents that can be used as 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 still will be able to get around the telephone check by presenting cards that the system is not equipped to process.

And lawyers who advise employers on immigration law note the system is only as good as the INS' database and the employees who operate it. Some INS data has been found to be riddled with errors, notes Peter Larrabee, a San Diego attorney and former Border Patrol agent who specializes in advising employers on immigration law.

Garcia-Patino, however, has no complaints.

Since job seekers are told their documents will be checked, those who might be trying to pass fraudulent papers are unlikely to apply, she said. Among the dozen or more cards she checks every week, Garcia-Patino said only three have proven invalid since the test began in March, 1992.

When the machine cannot validate the authenticity of an ID card, the name and number are sent for another check at a local INS office. If there is still a problem, the would-be employee is directed to the INS office to resolve the holdup.

Employers operating without the automated system are frustrated.

Underscoring the need for tough enforcement, some employers--notably in the construction and garment industries--openly flaunt IRCA, which mandates that companies verify job candidates' immigration status, authorities say. But those trying to comply with the law say they are perplexed by the Catch-22 that makes them dupes for phony IDs, yet prevents them from demanding more proof.

"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 in Washington for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, one of the civil rights groups that wants to abolish employer sanctions.

Legalized immigrant workers get caught in the same snare. Some employers, fearful of the INS, 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.

The employer sanctions issue has barely surfaced in the latest push by California's leaders for immigration reform. Gov. Pete Wilson has called for a tamper-proof work eligibility card that could curb the rampant market for fraudulent documents. But he has stopped short of calling for changes in the employer sanction law, saying he thinks the present law is adequate.

By law, job applicants must present some combination of 29 different kinds of identification--from passports to green cards to merchant mariner certificates--for inspection by an employer. The identification must appear genuine on its face, and employers are not allowed to ask for more proof than the law allows.

Congress approved IRCA's employer sanctions on the theory that if illegal immigrants were prevented from working, they would have no incentive to make the border crossing. At first, the law appeared to be working. But in the past few years, the immigrant wave has grown larger than ever. Authorities say part of the reason is because phony work cards are so easy to obtain.

Employers who fall victim to green card scams often pay a heavy price--exacted by the INS.

When Vans was raided, the company was forced to shut down for a day and hire replacements for many of the 203 workers who were deported. Its stock price plummeted, and the firm's president, Richard Leeuwenburg, was later terminated.

Leeuwenburg doesn't blame the raid for the loss of his job, but says, "I'm sure it didn't help."

Yet company officials say they were complying with the law by checking identification. An outside immigration lawyer had validated the company's hiring procedures only a few months before the raid.

Having fallen victim to a massive fraudulent ID ring, Vans has since implemented one of the most intense anti-fraud programs around. But now the sneaker company has to worry about violating IRCA's anti-discrimination provisions.

Vans officials have started checking each applicant's Social Security card number on a special phone line to the Social Security Administration. Moreover, the INS has provided the company with a list of law enforcement tricks built into green cards. For instance, one of the i 's in the word "immigration" is intentionally missing in the fine print on some cards.

For Vans to go any further could be risky.

"You would have to be very careful," warned Craig E. Gosselin, vice president and legal counsel. "You're exposing yourself to a discrimination suit."

Still, the head of the federal office that enforces the anti-discrimination provisions says employers have nothing to fear as long as an applicant's ID looks valid on its face and they do not demand more proof of legal status than the law allows.

"There's no question there is a delicate balance between the provision this office enforces and the employee sanctions the INS enforces," said William Ho-Gonzalez, who heads the Office of Special Counsel. "The problem is a lot of employers have the perception they are the policemen. In being overzealous to try to not employ undocumented workers, they can run afoul of the anti-discrimination (provisions)."

El Gallo's Garcia-Patino however, said the telephone verification system could solve many problems.

"It is not like having INS on your premises," she said. "But it is an extension of their services (that) would benefit the employers."

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