WASHINGTON — For critics, the idea is an Orwellian nightmare: The federal government would begin signing off on every hiring decision made in the United States.
It's the latest plan to stop illegal immigrants from entering the country. The nation's 7.4 million employers would be required to provide the government with Social Security numbers for all new employees — more than 55 million each year — and federal employees would then use a massive electronic database to do crosschecks. The new system would aim to detect any workers who got their jobs by using fraudulent Social Security numbers.
For advocates, though, it's a fine idea, an easy way to quickly verify the eligibility status of new employees.
"If the government turns a blind eye to illegal behavior, our rule of law will be undermined and chaos will ensue," said Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., one of 32 House of Representatives members pushing a bill to create the system.
Whether it's regarded as Big Brother or a big improvement, the plan is getting a good vetting on Capitol Hill. It has enormous implications for employers and the Social Security Administration, which would conduct the background checks.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes the plan, says the legislation would create a "no-work list" in the Washington bureaucracy.
"Americans should not have to ask their federal government if they have permission to accept a new job," said Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.
Other opponents fear the assignment would overwhelm the Social Security Administration, which is already lagging in its work.
"Disability cases are piling up, and needy people are waiting years to receive their benefits," said Barbara Kennelly, president and chief executive officer of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Testifying before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security last week, she said that the plan would divert the agency's workers from their current jobs. And she noted the high cost: $10 billion over nine years, or nearly 10 percent of the agency's administrative budget.
Amid much politicking, Congress has been stymied in its efforts to pass any major immigration bills in recent years. The new plan is much more modest and may have a better chance of becoming law.
Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson, whose district includes a 114-mile section of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border, said Congress should follow the lead of her home state. It's the first state to mandate a so-called E-verify program.
"To give you some context, last year 387,000 illegal immigrants were apprehended in Arizona," Giffords said. "That's approximately 1,000 illegal immigrants every single day."
John Trasvina, the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the plan would drive more illegal immigrants to the underground economy to avoid deportation. That would cost the federal government an estimated $770 a million a year in lost tax revenues, he said, citing an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Trasvina said the plan's biggest winners would be unscrupulous employers. Employees would be less likely to complain about working conditions, and employers could more easily avoid payroll taxes and the costs of workers' compensation and unemployment insurance, he added.
"They will continue to employ unauthorized workers, knowing they are more susceptible than ever before to exploitation and intimidation," he said.
Currently, about 61,000 employers are running background checks on their employees as part of a voluntary pilot project, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. In a recent report to Congress, the office said that a mandatory system could be vulnerable to fraud and abuse if employers limit work assignments or pay while the government verifies employees. And it questioned whether the system could detect employees who present genuine Social Security documents that may have been stolen or sold to them.
Despite the risks, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, the plan's chief sponsor, said Americans are "tired of broken laws and broken promises" and that it's time for Congress to act. The House's Social Security subcommittee has held 10 hearings on employment verification systems in the last four years, he said.
"Like it or not, Social Security has the only database able to confirm citizenship for American citizens," said Johnson, the top-ranked Republican on the Social Security subcommittee. "... It is time to start solving the problem of how to do electronic employee verification and stop asking if we need to do it."