Targeting Workers' Phony IDs INS Crackdown Foils Fake Documents but May Unfairly Target Legal Minorities. Series: Pappasitos Restaurant in Austin, Texas, Participates in an INS Program That Allows a Phone Check of Workers' Immigration Status. It Helps Owners Avoid Being Fined for Hiring Undocumented Workers. BY ROBERT HARBISON - STAFF

Article excerpt

Twelve years after one of the most sweeping immigration laws in history, efforts to stem the flow of illegals into the United States are foundering on bogus documents and scofflaw businesses.

When Congress first prohibited US employers from hiring illegal immigrants in 1986, it was intended to cut down on the dramatic rise in illegal entries along the US-Mexican border by taking away the migrants' main reason for coming - the lure of jobs in the North. But today most businesses still have no quick way to check the eligibility of people they hire - and many don't want to.

This puts those who do at the mercy of prospective workers, who can present dozens of documents to prove their identities. In an era when the most basic copy machine can churn out real-looking driver's licenses and birth certificates, it can be difficult to tell the fraud from the real Montoya.

But in Texas and four other high-immigration states, federal agencies are now testing a telephone verification program that may give US businesses a chance to abide by the law, and avoid hefty fines. "The problem that immigration officials have always faced is that employers could always say ... these fraudulent papers look real enough to them," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group in Washington. "Not only does this make it difficult for the feds to crack down on undocumented workers, it provides a screen for crooked employers who routinely hire illegal immigrants."

But if you think the solution is to create a tamperproof national identification card, as found in many European and Asian nations, guess again. Opposed by both civil libertarians and social conservatives alike, a national ID card has long been portrayed as a threat to privacy, with overtones of Big Brother. As a result, federal immigration officials are testing a less-controversial - and some say flawed - approach of using a telephone call to cross-match employees' names against their Social Security numbers.

Why the crackdown

Immigration is growing at a rate unseen in almost 80 years. While 1 million immigrants enter the US legally each year, more than 5 million others arrive illegally, more than half of those from Mexico. The US Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) has responded to this illegal tide in the past five years by doubling the size of its Border Patrol and, more recently, by conducting worksite raids in places such as hotels and meatpacking and poultry plants, where many undocumented people work.

If all goes well at the 950 employer test sites in Texas, California, Florida, Illinois, and New York, employers may, for the first time, get their immigration questions answered quickly. …