WASHINGTON — The nation's employers say a major problem with system overload is on the way if Congress forces them to prove, electronically, that all their workers are legal.

WASHINGTON — The nation's employers say a major problem with system overload is on the way if Congress forces them to prove, electronically, that all their workers are legal.

Currently, 16,727 employers check employees through a system previously known as Basic Pilot and now called the Electronic Employer Verification System. They have checked 1.77 million employees, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within the Homeland Security Department.

Current immigration law leaves it to employers to verify that they are hiring legal workers. But that law, passed in 1986, has not been enforced strictly.

Immigration legislation pending in the Senate would require that Social Security numbers, identification and other information supplied by all U.S. workers be run through the electronic system. If the proposal becomes law, employers would have to check all new hires within 18 months of its enactment, and check all other employees within three years.

That could mean millions more employers logging on to a system that, right now, is still under development.

"I just don't think this is a realistic approach," said Susan R. Meisinger, president of the Society for Human Resource Management, a suburban Washington-based association of human resources professionals. To get to all new hires in a year, she said, the Homeland Security Department would have to sign up 20,000 employers a day.

There are an estimated 7 million to 8 million employers and 140 million employees in the U.S., business and labor officials say. Under the Senate proposal, employers who have illegal workers on the payroll could face fines from $5,000 per worker to up to $75,000 and six months in jail per worker.

Screening proponents say the requirement is needed because too many employers are hiring illegal immigrants, whether knowingly or unwittingly.

The worker check system can't verify the accuracy of all information submitted to an employer, including drivers licenses and state identification cards obtained with stolen or borrowed birth certificates.

That was a problem for the pork and beef processor Swift & Co., which had been using the system for 10 years when its six plants were raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year. More than 1,200 immigrant workers were arrested; Swift itself wasn't charged.

Di Ann Sanchez, vice president of human resources at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, anticipates a bottleneck when the airport has to ensure its 1,800 employees are legal — even those employed for decades.

"If you've got all these employers hitting that system, is the system reliable to do it and not come back with a false negative or be so overloaded that it won't allow employers to hire as quickly as we need to?" Sanchez said.

Jock Scharfen, deputy director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told Congress last month that a recent study found the system could not initially confirm eight of every 100 people checked.

Not all of those who were not confirmed are illegal workers. Sometimes the system flags naturalized citizens whose citizenship status hasn't been updated, or women who didn't change their names on Social Security records when they married.

Confirmations are returned to employers in about three seconds, Scharfen said. The Senate bill allows up to three business days for initial responses to queries and 10 business days to confirm whether the worker is legal.

Chris Bentley, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency is "confident the foundation has been laid so there can be rapid expansion of the program as needed."

The system has given accurate and timely responses to the 800 branches of Long Island, N.Y.-based Adecco Group North America, a firm that helps companies find temporary and contract workers, said Bernadette Kenny, senior vice president for human resources.

Kenny, however, is not confident that will continue when more employers are using the system.

"The current proposals do not seem to account for the huge technology or infrastructure support that would be needed to expand it," Kenny said. "If you added every employer in America, even in my simple mind, without greatly expanding that platform, it would crash."

Employers now collect information from the I-9 forms filled out by every U.S. worker when they are hired. They submit the information, usually name, birth date, Social Security number and citizenship or immigration status to the Internet-based system. A Social Security database is checked to verify the person is a citizen.

Noncitizens' information is checked with a Homeland Security immigration database. Anyone whose status can't be verified has eight days to call a toll free number and can't be fired or have adverse employment action taken against him. DHS said it usually resolves such cases in three business days.

Critics are skeptical that Homeland Security can set up an employer verification system to handle all workers in four years. They note the agency has postponed a system to track foreigners entering and leaving the country.

Homeland officials are testing a program now with about 50 employers that will allow checks of photos on green cards, used by legal permanent residents, to verify identities. The Senate proposal also calls for testing a system in which employers would submit workers' fingerprints.

———

On the Net:

HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce: http:www.hrinitiative.org/

Homeland Security Department: http:www.dhs.gov

American Civil Liberties Union: http:www.aclu.org