WASHINGTON -- It sounds simple enough: Every time a business makes a hire, the employer first dials a toll-free telephone number to verify the immigration status of the new worker.
Just like the process that occurs at the cash register when a customer hands over a credit card, a central computer would instantly relay back a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
Computer verification of immigration status is being described by proponents as a virtually foolproof method of determining who can and cannot legally work in the United States, one offering far more reliability than the easily forged work-authorization documents now reviewed by employers. Endorsed by Republican leaders in Congress, the proposal is contained in pending legislation in both the House and Senate.
But as the two houses prepare to cast final votes in coming weeks on their immigration reform measures, the verification plan is provoking bitter debate and blurring party lines on Capitol Hill.
The roster of opponents includes small-business owners concerned about the hassle of phoning Uncle Sam every time they hire someone and civil libertarians who fear that a government database might be misused. House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas has expressed concern about the GOP proposal, while President Clinton is supporting the concept but urging a go-slow approach.
The conflicting views are captured in slogans offered by different Republican members of Congress to describe the hot line.
Rep. Elton Gallegly, a California Republican, calls it "1-800-END FRAUD," arguing that the verification system is so essential to immigration reform that any legislation adopted by Congress will be largely toothless without it.
But one of Mr. Gallegly's GOP colleagues, Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, has dubbed the hot line "1-800-BIG BROTHER." Said Mr. Chabot: "I think it's an undue expansion of federal powers." He has joined with Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat, in attempting to kill the plan.
The Clinton administration supports the idea of worker status verification and has already launched pilot projects in California to test the approach. But many bugs must be worked out, administration officials say, and launching a system too quickly might cause more problems than it solves.
"We are in a test mode, and we truly don't know what we'll find," said Bob Bach of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
If a mandatory national verification system is implemented before the glitches can be eliminated, many qualified workers could experience the same sinking feeling that they get when a credit card purchase is improperly rejected -- and the same inconvenience in straightening out the situation. And if safeguards are not in place, employers could be tempted to use the system for improper purposes.
Since 1986, it has been against the law for employers to hire illegal immigrants. But because fraudulent documents are so prevalent, the law has been largely ineffective.
The proposed telephone hot line would get around the problem of forged documents by tapping directly into government records.
Proponents say the change is not all that drastic. It would be required for all job seekers.
Some businesses, however, fear that they would be in for serious problems if the federal government gets that involved in hiring.