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Man versus Machine

May 25, 2006


The immigration debate is raging, both in Congress and in communities across the country. On one side are the xenophobes who misuse Robert Frost’s poetry, declaring, “Good fences make good neighbors.” On the other side, are those who would grant amnesty to those who have illegally slipped across the border and successfully established themselves in the U.S.  The President is trying to find a compromise position that increases enforcement, permits guest workers, and offers a path to citizenship for illegal aliens who are gainfully employed and raising families. The debate, of course, is not just about poor laborers looking for work. Added to the mix is the growing challenge of criminal activity involving aggressive Latin gangs as well as terrorists.

One of the tools being developed on the enforcement side is the Basic Pilot Program, which electronically searches a combination of Social Security and immigration databases to verify an employee’s status. An article in today’s Washington Post, highlights the fact that not everyone is pleased with the program. The article (“Expanded Worker Checks Would Use Faulty System,” by Griff Witte) notes that the ID process has a checkered past and it will cost more than $1 billion to fix the problems and make it more than a pilot program. The problems are created because the system has trouble distinguishing between those who are here legally and those who are not — a classic man versus machine conundrum.

In theory, the Basic Pilot Program is a simple idea — an employer checks a potential employee’s data against Social Security and immigration records to verify his or her employment status. In tests, however, the system has a large error rate and trying to correct errors is manpower intensive and slow. According to the article, “Nearly one in three noncitizens the electronic system cannot initially verify are later cleared based on a manual search of the records, according to government statistics.” Anyone whose name is the same (or similar) to someone on the Terrorist Watch List (and has been denied boarding at an airport) knows how difficult it is to correct databases and avoid repeatedly going through the screening process. Since Enterra Solutions is in the compliance business — including the automatic checking of databases — you can imagine my concern when I read criticisms of such processes. The Basic Pilot Program could sour everyone on such systems.

Good results start with good databases. The fact that nearly 30% of those initially denied work authorization are later cleared based on a manual search of records indicates that the databases are not in good shape. That is a serious problem. The article goes on to point out, “A Government Accountability Office report issued in August [2005] criticized [the Basic Pilot Program] for its inability to catch identity fraud, for flaws in the databases and for the possibility that employers will abuse the system.” The fact of the matter is that the call for identification checks — be they for work status, criminal activity, or potential terrorists — is going to increase, not decrease. It’s time to bite the bullet and put real attention into improving databases, ensuring both their accuracy and privacy (as discussed in yesterday’s blog). It is also time to face the fact that some sort of biometric identification system is going to have to be used in the case of ambiguous identity.

None of this is going to be easy or cheap. In addition, the line between essential identity verification and intrusion of civil liberties is very thin. Enterra, of course, cannot control the accuracy of databases, but our technology makes database checks almost instantaneous. Using what we call Transparent Intelligent Interfaces, the verification process is monitored realtime, ambiguous or negative results immediately alert proper individuals so that human intervention can take appropriate action. Just as important, the entire process is auditable, because the system automatically generates an audit trail — a protection for employer’s trying to comply with immigration regulations.

The Senate, which has been more reasonable in its approach to immigration than the House, is trying to find a compromise that protects civil rights and enforces immigration laws. The Post article reports:

The Senate amendment passed Tuesday would give workers the benefit of the doubt until the program is proven effective, would allow workers to seek back wages from the government if there is an error, and would, in some cases, limit employers’ liability for hiring illegal workers — but it would also increase the penalties.

Using a system like Enterra’s, workers in an ambiguous status could be put to work (avoiding the back wages issue) while manual checks were completed. As under the proposed system:

If the employee is still not cleared, he or she would be issued “a tentative nonconfirmation” and has up to 10 business days to contest the ruling. Employers would be forbidden from firing an employee until they receive a final notice confirming that the worker is ineligible.

The worker wouldn’t “fall through the cracks” because his or her record is automatically flagged during the initial verification check and that flag remains until cleared. The employer is protected because the system automatically generates an audit trail indicating that the company is in full compliance with the law. Worker’s involved in ambiguous checks could voluntarily provide a thumb print or eye scan (or other biometric) so that future verification’s can be cleared up instantly in any future checks.

Of course, being a born salesman, I would also point out that any employer using an Enterra system for verification could build on that system to automate other business processes, making their operation more effective and efficient — what we call a Resilient Enterprise. Looking at the bigger picture, globalization simply cannot progress if the flow of resources, capital, or people is unnecessarily impeded. As long as criminals and terrorists are part of the mix, a more foolproof identification scheme must be developed. Yes, it will be more intrusive, but that is a price we are already paying. The Post article concluded:

“There’s simply no way of enforcing existing law without the Basic Pilot or something like it,” said Kevin Jernegan, an immigration specialist at George Washington University. “But nothing is as easy in practice as it appears to be on paper.”

Being an optimist, I think we can figure this thing out — keeping our economy moving and keeping hope of a better life alive for legal immigrants.

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