CIS expands its eligibility system

Upgrades anticipate reforms on immigration, will allow support for new state laws and Real ID

DOUBLE UP: The Citizenship and Immigration Service's Gerri Ratliff is helping test whether the Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification System can jump from 40 million queries to 80 million annually.

GCN Photo by Zaid Hamid

For a fistful of dollars, the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has upgraded the computer system that verifies employment eligibility in preparation for comprehensive federal immigration legislation, and it plans to roll out additional features this fall.

The system upgrades come at a helpful time. In a twist of fate, state legislatures are taking over a task Congress recently fumbled: mandating compulsory use of the Homeland Security Department's Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification System (EEEVS) to assure that newly hired employees are in the country legally.

DHS faced longstanding criticism over flaws in EEEVS' precursor system, the Basic Pilot Program, which generated frequent errors and attracted only 17,000 of the country's 5.9 million employers as voluntary members.

Some critics cited the system's slow function and high error rate. Others pointed to gaps in its operation that allowed ineligible job applicants to get away with document fraud.

CIS said the upgrades it has adopted to improve the system's speed and accuracy will support the emerging state laws in addition to other programs that require verification that a person is here legally.

For a few dollars more, CIS is adding photo enhancement to EEEVS. The photo tool will call up a photograph of an individual during an eligibility check to help foil document fraud and identity theft.

Enabling the increased system workload and preparing for the new photo feature has driven CIS technology managers to expand the program's staff from seven people in 1996 to about 50 federal employees and contractors now, said Gerri Ratliff, chief of the agency's Verification Division.

Ratliff and her information technology staff are overseeing an EEEVS load test, set to run through July 18, that is intended to increase the processing burden on the database until it stops functioning.

The load test was planned as a step to prepare EEEVS for the massive burden of checking all new hires, as the scuttled immigration reforms would have mandated. The current rate of new hires across the entire economy is about 54 million annually, Ratliff said.

CIS is using a parallel version of the verification system, set up separately from its online twin, to conduct the load test, Ratliff said.

'We asked for and got $114 million for fiscal 2007,' Ratliff said. 'Of that amount, $46.5 million was no-year money' that can be spent in future fiscal years.

'For 2008, we have asked for $30 million,' Ratliff said. 'So we will have the $46.5 million [held over] from before, along with the $30 million' for 2008, adding to a total of $76.5 million for additional upgrades.

Re-engineering effort

The CIS division's IT team already has worked extensively to re-engineer the business processes that lie behind EEEVS, Ratliff said.

Recent enhancements have included an improved online method for employers to register to use the verification system, she said. The division also is preparing new training materials to help employers use the system properly.

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff touted the system's predecessor, the Basic Pilot Program, as a key part of the Strategic Border Initiative.

But Chertoff himself has admitted that the employment verification system's key function ' that of matching individuals to Social Security numbers ' can catch some but not all types of fraud. In remarks late last year, he said that although the SSN match is useful, 'it is not a magic bullet for every kind of problem.'

Chertoff added that 'there is a separate problem, a more sophisticated problem, that arises when people actually steal legitimate names and numbers that match together, and then use those stolen identities to get work.'

As a result, he said, the electronic system inoculates a company against one variety of employment fraud but not others.

For example, Chertoff said, 'the law currently does not allow the Social Security Administration to refer to us instances where the same Social Security number is used on multiple occasions in multiple workplaces as a basis for obtaining jobs.'

That law has not been changed, immigration experts say. But EEEVS will provide a back-door method of detecting when the latter type of SSN fraud is taking place, immigration IT specialists say.

The EEEVS upgrades have included improvements that signal when an employer's recent hires submit the same legitimate SSN several times, according to CIS.

The self-checking features also will signal when an employer is using the system to verify only noncitizens, CIS said. That method of using the verification system is a type of discrimination, because EEEVS is designed to be applied to all persons who are hired by a company or agency, whether they are citizens or legal residents.

The photo feature of EEEVS will counteract the Basic Pilot Program's vulnerability to document fraud, CIS said.

The agency is testing the photo in pilots with 70 employers, the Government Accountability Office said. The immigration agency plans to have the photo feature ready for nationwide use by autumn, GAO said.

The GAO statements came in written testimony submitted to the House Ways and Means Committee's Social Security Subcommittee June 7 by Richard Stana, homeland security and justice issues director at the congressional audit agency.

CIS has started the photo feature by first using data within its systems ' notably, the photos taken for permanent resident visas (green cards) and for Employment Authorization Documents (EADs), Ratliff said.

The DHS agency also is working with a state motor vehicle department to craft a system for linking EEEVS to the department's records. Ratliff declined to name that state, but independent sources said CIS is working with California's DMV.
The photo tool pilot already has detected one job applicant who committed fraud using a false green card and another violator who used a false EAD as an identity document, Ratliff said.

The new photo tool is a helpful improvement, some analysts say, but does not constitute a true biometric proof of identity.

CIS administers many visa categories and benefits that confer the right to hold a job on noncitizens who are in the country legally.

Ratliff said CIS would eventually extend the photo feature to citizens, too. 'Otherwise, the photo feature simply would drive the document fraud in the direction of false claims to citizenship rather than frauds that use visa documents.'

CIS has relied on its contractor ' Computer Sciences Corp. ' to carry out much of the systems integration for the EEEVS upgrades. The system uses an Oracle database management system. 'Our current configuration can handle about 40 million queries annually,' Ratliff said.

In addition to the approximately 54 million annual hires, CIS expects an additional 10 million queries generated annually by the Systematic Application Verification Eligibility System (SAVES) program and another 10 million queries that likely will be required by the Real ID program, Ratliff said.

The SAVES program requires that individuals who apply for various types of government benefits, such as housing subsidies, have their legal residence status checked.

The Real ID program calls for an enhanced driver's license that will serve as proof of citizenship or legal residence.

CIS technology executives expect to be able to scale up the Oracle database that lies at the core of EEEVS to a capacity of about 80 million queries annually as demand increases, Ratliff said.

Critics of DHS' Basic Pilot Program have pointed to a high rate of errors that the system generated and also the slow resolution of problems it identified.

Ratliff said the system has been improved to the point where recent third-party tests show that about 92 percent of name checks return immediately, and an additional 7 percent generate a mismatch with Social Security records. The remaining name checks call for manual follow-up.

Verification gap

But a more serious gap in EEEVS' operation has been raised by some analysts who point out that the system forms the basis for rejecting an applicant only when the SSN is identified as rejected by the database search.

In other instances, where there is no match at all, the person being checked just keeps the job, those analysts say, even though their employment eligibility has not been electronically verified.

That flaw in the Basic Pilot Program and EEEVS allowed some companies that participated in the program to continue to hire illegal workers, some analysts say. For example, six abattoirs across the country owned by meatpacker Swift were the sites of raids in December 2006 that netted hundreds of arrests.

Swift had participated in the Basic Pilot Program since 1997, the company said at the time of the Operation Wagon Train wave of arrests.

Chertoff and other federal officials said the immigration law violations by the company's employees centered on document fraud. DHS and the other authorities involved in Operation Wagon Train did not charge Swift with a crime, according to multiple press reports.

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