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Panel Says Jobs Registry Would Filter Out Illegals
By Louis Freedberg Chronicle Washington Bureau 9/94

WASHINGTON

The government should establish a national employment registry based on Social Security numbers to determine whether job seekers are in the country illegally, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform proposed yesterday.

But the commission, headed by former Texas Representative Barbara Jordan, stopped short of calling for a national identification card that job applicants would have to show to potential employers.

The proposal drew immediate criticism from a wide range of immigration and civil rights groups, who said the registry could violate the rights of those who are living in the United States legally.

Jordan, who was appointed to the commission by President Clinton, said the computerized database she had in mind would contain the names of everyone in the United States who has a Social Security number.

Employers would not have to ask job applicants their immigration status, but would simply ask for some identification and then check their Social Security number against the nationwide database.

"We wanted to build on a system that already exists for most people," Jordan told the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration.

Critics say the current system is unwieldy because 29 different documents can be presented as proof of citizenship or legal residence. Many of the documents are easy to forge, and employers are reluctant to ask too many questions of job applicants for fear of being accused of discrimination.

Jordan, well known for her stands against discrimination, hotly rebutted any suggestion that the registry, which would include information provided by the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, would violate individual rights.

"I would not be party to any system that I felt would lead to an unwarranted intrusion into anyone's private life," she said.

The commission recommended that the five states most affected by illegal immigration, including California, immediately begin testing the best ways to use the database.

"We have recommended a pilot program because we have not reached consensus on the best way to access the computer registry," Jordan said. She said the states would test the use of Social Security numbers alone, and of requiring drivers' licenses and other photo identification cards, along with the Social Security database.

California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said she would like to see the pilot program "move ahead right away."

But pro-immigrant groups condemned the proposal as a first step toward setting up a national ID card, which they fear will be used against people who sound or look foreign.

"Even by another name like `verification system' or `computer registry' they are still talking about a national ID card," said Raoul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council on La Raza in Washington, D.C.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association said it was "ludicrous and unreasonable" to verify the "legitimacy of more than 98.5 percent of the U.S. population who are citizens or lawful residents because of the desire to deny employment to maybe 1.5 percent, at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer."

Susan Forbes Martin, the commission's executive director, acknowledged the difficulties of setting up a registry with accurate, verifiable data. Social Security cards are among the most common counterfeit documents seized by the INS, and those responsible for fake cards have found it easy to obtain the Social Security numbers of people who have died.

Jordan suggested that one way to get around the problem would be to attach a "unique identifier" to each Social Security card, like a personal identification number.

Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, said he agreed with the aims of Jordan's proposal but argued that it would "lead to an erosion of civil liberties."

"Any attempt to introduce a worker identification system, even a pilot program, is unwarranted," said Foltin.

The commission was established under the Immigration Act of 1990, and is required to submit to Congress an interim report on immigration policy this year and a final report in 1997. Yesterday was the first time that the commission had reported to Congress on any of its deliberations.

Chronicle wire services contributed to this report

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