Immigration Enforcement:

Weaknesses Hinder Employment Verification and Worksite Enforcement Efforts

GAO-05-813: Published: Aug 31, 2005. Publicly Released: Sep 21, 2005.

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The opportunity for employment is one of the most important magnets attracting illegal immigrants to the United States. Immigration experts state that strategies to deter illegal immigration require both a reliable employment eligibility verification process and a worksite enforcement capacity to ensure that employers comply with immigration-related employment laws. This report examines (1) the current employment verification (Form I-9) process and challenges, if any, facing verification; and (2) the priorities and resources of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) worksite enforcement program and any challenges in implementing the program.

The current employment verification process is based on employers' review of documents presented by new employees to prove their identity and work eligibility. On the Form I-9, employers certify that they have reviewed employees' documents and that the documents appear genuine and relate to the individual presenting them. However, various studies have shown that document fraud (use of counterfeit documents) and identity fraud (fraudulent use of valid documents or information belonging to others) have made it difficult for employers who want to comply with the employment verification process to hire only authorized workers and easier for unscrupulous employers to knowingly hire unauthorized workers. The large number and variety of documents acceptable for proving work eligibility have also hindered verification efforts. In 1997, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), issued an interim rule on a reduction in the number of acceptable work eligibility documents and, in 1998, proposed a further reduction, but this proposal has not yet been finalized. DHS is currently reviewing the list of acceptable work eligibility documents, but has not established a target time frame for completing this review. The Basic Pilot Program, a voluntary program through which participating employers electronically verify employees' work eligibility, has potential to help enhance the verification process and substantially reduce document fraud. Yet, current weaknesses in the program, such as the inability of the program to detect identity fraud, DHS delays in entering data into its databases, and some employer noncompliance with pilot program requirements could, if not addressed, have a significant impact on the program's success. Furthermore, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials stated that the current Basic Pilot Program may not be able to complete timely verifications if the number of employers using the program significantly increased. Worksite enforcement is one of various immigration enforcement programs that compete for resources and, under the former INS and now under ICE, worksite enforcement has been a relatively low priority. Consistent with DHS's mission to combat terrorism, after September 11, 2001, INS and then ICE focused worksite enforcement resources mainly on removing unauthorized workers from critical infrastructure sites to help address those sites' vulnerabilities. Since fiscal year 1999, the numbers of employer notices of intent to fine and administrative worksite arrests have generally declined, according to ICE, due to various factors such as document fraud, which makes it difficult to prove employer violations. ICE has not yet developed outcome goals and measures for its worksite enforcement program, which, given limited resources and competing priorities for those resources, may hinder ICE's efforts to determine resources needed for the program.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In an August 2005 report, we reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lacked output goals and measures necessary to inform its resource allocation decisions. We reported that without additional output goals and measures for worksite enforcement, ICE's ability to effectively determine and allocate worksite enforcement resources needed to meet program goals and to fully assess whether the agency was using those resources effectively and efficiently was hindered. We recommended that ICE establish additional output goals and measures for the worksite enforcement program. Acting on our recommendation, in fiscal year 2009, ICE established two additional output goals and measures for its worksite enforcement program. These additional output goals and measures will help ICE better track the progress of its worksite enforcement efforts, determine the resources needed to meet worksite enforcement program goals, and ensure that program resources are used efficiently and effectively.

    Recommendation: To assist Congress and ICE in determining the resources needed for the worksite enforcement program and to help ensure the efficient and effective use of program resources, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for ICE to establish additional output goals and measures for the worksite enforcement program to clearly indicate the target level of ICE worksite enforcement activity and the resources needed to implement the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Improving Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: In an August 2005 report, we identified weaknesses in the Basic Pilot Program, a voluntary program through which participating employers electronically verify employees' work eligibility. We reported that these weaknesses, including the program's inability to detect identify fraud, delays in the entry of employment authorization information into Department of Homeland Security (DHS) databases, and employer noncompliance with program procedures, could have a significant impact on the program's success if not addressed. We recommended that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within DHS assess the feasibility and costs of addressing these program weaknesses as part of its planned evaluation of the program. Acting on our recommendation, USCIS included an assessment of the Basic Pilot Program's weaknesses and ways to address those weaknesses in its evaluation of the program. As part of its deliberations on immigration policy reform, Congress is considering making participation in an electronic employment eligibility verification program mandatory for all employers. Information on the Basic Pilot Program's weaknesses and program improvements will help Congress and USCIS better evaluate future use of the program, including possible increased or mandatory employer usage.

    Recommendation: To assist Congress and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in assessing the possibility of increased or mandatory use of the Basic Pilot Program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Director of USCIS to include, in the planned evaluation of the Basic Pilot Program, an assessment of the feasibility and costs of addressing the Basic Pilot Program's current weaknesses, including its inability to detect identity fraud in the verification and reverification processes, delays in entry of new arrival and employment authorization information into DHS databases, and employer noncompliance with program procedures, and resources needed to support any increased or mandatory use of the program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In an August 2005 report, we found that the large number and variety of documents that were acceptable for proving work eligibility complicated employer verification efforts. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was assessing possible revisions to the Form I-9-- the form that employers and employees must complete to certify that the employees are authorized to work in the United States-- including revisions to the number of acceptable work eligibility documents, but had not yet established a target time frame for completing the assessment. We reported that in the absence of final regulations and an updated Form I-9, employers, employees, and other stakeholders may not clearly understand the Form I-9 process, particularly which documents were acceptable for proving work eligibility. We recommended that DHS set a specific time frame for completing the department's review of the Form I-9 process, including an assessment of the possibility of reducing the number of acceptable work eligibility documents, and issuing final regulations on changes to the Form I-9 process and an updated Form I-9. Acting on our recommendation, in December 2008, DHS amended its regulations governing the type of acceptable identity and work eligibility documents and receipts that employees may present to their employers for completion of the Form I-9. The purpose of this rule is to improve the integrity of the employment verification process so that individuals who are unauthorized to work are prevented from obtaining employment in the United States. Under the rule, employers will no longer be able to accept expired documents to verify employment authorization on the Form I-9. The rule also removes three documents from the Form I-9 that are no longer issued and for which DHS has determined that any such documents that were previously issued have expired. In addition, the rule adds documentation for citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. DHS has included a revised Form I-9 with the amended regulations.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the current employment verification process, the Secretary of Homeland Security should set a specific time frame for completing the department's review of the Form I-9 process, including an assessment of the possibility of reducing the number of acceptable work eligibility documents, and issuing final regulations on changes to the Form I-9 process and an updated Form I-9.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In an August 2005 report, we found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lacked outcome goals and measures for its worksite enforcement program, but as a first step in developing such goals and measures, was conducting baseline threat-level assessments. We reported that without outcome goals and measures, ICE would not be able to effectively assess the results of program efforts. We recommended that ICE set a specific time frame for completing its assessment and develop outcome goals and measures for its worksite enforcement program. Acting on our recommendation, in fiscal year 2009, ICE established a target time frame to complete its assessment and development of outcome goals and measures. Completion of the assessment and development of outcome goals and measures will provide ICE, Congress, and other stakeholders with information on the target level of performance for worksite enforcement efforts and measures to assess the extent to which program results have met program goals.

    Recommendation: To assist Congress and ICE in determining the resources needed for the worksite enforcement program and to help ensure the efficient and effective use of program resources, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary for ICE to set a specific time frame for completing the assessment and development of outcome goals and measures for the worksite enforcement program to provide a target level of performance for worksite enforcement efforts and measures to assess the extent to which program results have met program goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

 

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