Leigh Miller for GlobalAtlanta
To avoid criminal charges for employing illegal immigrants, Georgia companies are advised to join a voluntary pilot program offered by the Social Security Administration and the Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency, said Atlanta immigration attorney Robert Banta.

The Basic Pilot Program, for which companies may register at www.ice.gov, involves Social Security and ICE personnel training companies’ payroll administrators on a system that verifies that new hires’ social security numbers, names and visas match up.

“Employers can still be duped by fraudulent documents, however,” Mr. Banta told GlobalAtlanta in an interview at his office, Banta Immigration Law Ltd., at Colony Square in Midtown.

He said that since ICE passed regulations on April 20 that make hiring illegal workers a criminal, instead of civil, offense, companies have “no easy answer” for taking precautions in their hiring practices.

“The future of immigration is on the criminal front. There is a significant burden employers have to bear. In Georgia, this affects various industries, including carpet, poultry, construction, landscaping, hospitality and agriculture,” Mr. Banta said.

He noted that the general rule before April 20 was that even if an employer doubted the authenticity of an applicant’s documents, the company should go ahead and hire the person because if it did not, the applicant might sue for discrimination if he or she were turned down and then proved the documents were valid.

“But now, employers have become scapegoats [for illegal immigration woes]. They need a reliable way to verify whether employees are eligible, or else they risk criminal action. But frankly, there is no fool-proof system yet in place,” he said.

The pilot program is about 90 percent effective in verifying new employees, Mr. Banta said. Some 10 percent slip through the system due to stolen identities that use valid data but are not the actual person hired, he noted.

Companies enrolled in the pilot program will not be held liable if employees they verified using the system are later found to be illegal, Mr. Banta said. But the system must be used only for new hires within three business days of their start date, not for employees already working for a company, he warned.

The program will be obligatory for Georgia companies with 1,000 or more employees effective July 2007.

Companies not enrolled in the pilot program should verify the eligibility of their new employees within three days of hiring them by calling a hotline at (800) 772-6270 to verify up to five names, Mr. Banta suggested. He added that if a company uses the hotline to check on one employee, however, it should check the Social Security numbers of all newly hired employees to avoid discrimination accusations.

Companies wishing to verify 11 or more employees should submit the list to a local Social Security office and will receive results in one busiiness day. For immediate results for up to 10 names, companies can register for the Social Security Number Verification Service online at https://www.socialsecurity.gov/employer/ssnv.htm.

Firms should also take seriously their obligation to fill out Employment Eligibility Verification, or I-9, forms that verify the employment eligibility and identity of all employees hired to work in the United States, Mr. Banta said.

Since 1986, the Immigration and Nationality Act requires employers to fill out I-9 forms for all employees, including U.S. citizens. Companies do not file the forms with the federal government but, rather, retain them for three years after the employee’s date of hire or one year after the date that employment is terminated, whichever is later.

Companies should also pay attention to letters sent to them by the Social Security Administration warning them that a high number of their employees’ social security numbers do not match the names given, Mr. Banta said.

Companies that receive these “mismatch letters” should check their own records and advise the employee to go to the Social Security Administration to clear up the problem, he said.

Whatever precautions they take, companies are looking for certainty and clarity on employment verification, Mr. Banta added. There are currently 30 different types of documents candidates for hire can present to potential employers, making the verification process complicated, he said.

If comprehensive immigration reform laws are passed in U.S. Congress, they will require companies to use the Basic Pilot Program for employment verification. But if no reform is passed, firms will be “looking hard to find qualified employees” because they will be afraid of hiring anyone who is not a U.S. citizen, Mr. Banta said.

“This will certainly affect our economy,” he noted.

Comprehensive immigration reform may be delayed, he added, because the U.S. House of Representatives has called for public hearings on the House and Senate immigration bills instead of forming a joint conference committee to reconcile the two versions and get to a vote before the November elections.

Contact Mr. Banta at (404) 249-9300 or visit www.bantalaw.com for more information.