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Federal Bills Propose a National Registry to Check Workers' Legality

By Marc Lacey
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

It sounds simple enough: Every time a business makes a hire, the employer first dials a toll-free telephone number to verify the immigration status of the new worker.

Just like the process that occurs at the cash register when a customer hands over a credit card, a central computer would instantly relay back a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Computer verification of immigration status is being described by proponents as a virtually foolproof method of determining who can and cannot legally work in the United States, one offering far more reliability than the easily forged work-authorization documents now reviewed by employers. Endorsed by Republican leaders in Congress, the idea is contained in pending legislation in both the House and Senate.

But as the two houses prepare to cast final votes in coming weeks on their immigration reform measures, the verification plan is provoking bitter debate and blurring party lines on Capitol Hill.

The roster of opponents includes small-business owners concerned about the hassle of phoning Uncle Sam every time they hire someone and civil libertarians who fear that a government database might be misused. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, has expressed concern about the GOP proposal, while President Clinton is supporting it in concept but urging a go-slow approach.

The conflicting views are captured in slogans offered by different Republican members of Congress to describe the hot line.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., calls it "1-800-END FRAUD," arguing that the verification system is so essential to immigration reform that any legislation adopted by Congress will be largely toothless without it.

One of Gallegly's colleagues, Rep. Steve Chabot , dubbed the hotline "1-800-BIG BROTHER."

"I think it's an undue expansion of federal powers," said Chabot, a freshman who joined with Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., in attempt to kill the plan. "It's inappropriate to require every employer to get the federal government's approval to hire someone."

The Clinton administration supports the idea of worker verification and has launched pilot projects in California to test the approach. But many bugs must be worked out, administration officials say, and launching a system too quickly might cause more problems than it solves.