Thursday, January 6, 2005; Page B02
For some of the government's technology employees, those "special rates" don't seem so special anymore.
The 2005 pay tables seem to suggest that the earnings of some federal high-tech workers are not keeping pace with that of other federal employees. The government offers special rates -- or higher pay -- in certain fields, such as technology and law enforcement, when agencies find it difficult to fill jobs.
But some federal high-tech workers don't think the 2005 pay tables add up. For example, the tables show a special rate salary range of $62,354 to $81,057 for General Schedule 12 technology employees in the Washington area. The rate for a rank-and-file GS-12 employee is a few hundred dollars higher, ranging from $62,886 to $81,747.
"What kind of math is this?" asked an information technology specialist at the National Park Service.
Added an Agriculture Department technology specialist, "Obviously, I do not want to be labeled as 'special' if this is the case."
The pay tables, however, do not tell the whole story.
Under law, when locality pay adjustments boost GS rates above special rates, employees get paid at the higher rate. That means that technology employees will have their pay go up at least 2.5 percent, but many will receive a higher raise, based on the pay rate for their area. In Washington, the 2005 raise is 3.71 percent.
The confusion began in 2001, when about 33,000 of the government's 64,000 technology employees were moved to a special pay rate table. Most were in grades 5 through 12 and got raises ranging from 7 percent to 33 percent, with employees at lower grades receiving the largest raises.
Prior to that year, numerous federal agencies reported difficulty in recruiting and retaining technology employees. With jobs hard to fill, the Office of Personnel Management authorized the use of special rates to keep the government competitive in the labor market.
But the competition appears less sharp. A recent study by the Information Technology Association of America found minimal demand for technology workers in the private sector last year. Still, some agencies are eager to retain or expand their technology staffs because they are upgrading equipment and addressing cyber security issues.
A memo from OPM Director Kay Coles James to agency personnel chiefs last month noted that "various options" had been discussed on how to handle pay for technology employees in 2005 but indicated that no consensus approach emerged, in part because not enough data were available.
James opted for a 2.5 percent raise in the special rates, the same increase in base pay provided GS employees.
In the memo, she said "a strategic analysis of [information technology] special rates remains an important task. I have directed my staff to continue with the planned work to collect information related to the recruitment, retention and pay of IT employees."
Collins Retains Federal Oversight
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will return to chair the Senate committee that oversees federal pay and benefits. The panel has been renamed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, her office announced.
Collins, who took charge of the committee in 2003, said she will work to improve operations at the Department of Homeland Security and will investigate how terrorists obtain money for their attacks and activities.
In her statement, Collins also said she plans to probe wasteful federal spending, enhance federal employee benefits, "modernize" the Postal Service and investigate the oil-for-food program run by the United Nations.
Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Social Security Council, American Federation of Government Employees, will be the guest on "FEDtalk" at 11 a.m. tomorrow on federalnewsradio.com.
Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute, will be the guest on the "IBM Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. Saturday on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).
"Thank President Bush for the Pay Raise?" will be the topic for discussion on the Imagene B. Stewart call-in program at 8 a.m. Sunday on WOL radio (1450 AM).
Homeland Security reconsidering secrecy policy
By EILEEN SULLIVAN
The Homeland Security Department is reviewing a controversial policy for protecting unclassified information, department officials said.
The highly criticized policy, issued in May, gives employees and contractors unprecedented authorities for classifying unclassified information as “For official use only.” It also allows the department to investigate employees and contractors at any time or place to make sure they are in compliance with the directive.
Homeland Security officials are reviewing the policy in light of labor unions’ concerns that it is too strict and violates First Amendment rights. “We are looking at the management directive to make sure it’s the best policy,” said department spokeswoman Valerie Smith.
When the department formed in March 2003, 22 agencies merged and brought with them dozens of different security practices, said Jack Johnson, outgoing director of the department’s Office of Security, which issued the secrecy policy.
Johnson said the department is sharing and synthesizing information in a way unprecedented in government. “We’re taking not just classified information, but we’re taking sensitive but unclassified information, critical infrastructure information, proprietary trademark information, corporate information . . . as we assist our partners — state and local, private sector — in providing them information so they can do their jobs and so they can help protect the homeland with us as part of our partnership,” Johnson said. “How do we protect all this sensitive but unclassified information?”
The management directive was an interim solution to this problem, he said, adding that the nondisclosure agreement and policy serves primarily as a teaching tool for the department’s 180,000 employees.
Attorneys from the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees say the policy serves as a way to cover up waste, fraud and abuse, which Johnson emphatically denies.
“I take the hits for this thing . . . because my job is to protect the information to protect this department,” Johnson said. “I’m going to err on the side of caution. There was no precedent for all this information, how to protect it, before DHS came into existence.”
He said he would rather see headlines about the nondisclosure policy than headlines about the department’s failure to protect critical infrastructure and information.
On the trail of 400,000 fugitives
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — On the 12th floor of an East Harlem housing project, Ray Simonse and his four-member squad of federal immigration agents thought they had their man cornered.
For days, the agents had tracked Juan Pablo Goris, 40, a native of the Dominican Republic who was in the USA illegally. The trail led to an apartment where Goris was believed to be staying with friends. The agents gathered there early one morning last month, figuring it would be the best time to catch him. But no one was home, so the frustrated agents moved to their next target. (Related link: Photo gallery)
It was a familiar scenario for the immigration agents, who are among about 80 fugitive hunters nationwide assigned by the Department of Homeland Security to find an estimated 400,000 illegal immigrants who disobeyed orders to leave the USA or who failed to appear at immigration hearings. In an unprecedented effort inspired by post-9/11 concerns about national security, DHS is using 18 teams of immigration agents to hunt for these fugitives and add some bite to immigration laws that for decades have rarely been enforced.
The teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, have been successful, to an extent. Along with border agents, the teams arrested 7,239 people from March through September last year, a 112% increase from that period in 2003. But because the list of fugitives continues to grow, U.S. agents have made modest progress in cutting the overall number, says Victor Cerda, a top ICE official.
Meanwhile, teams such as Simonse's painstakingly track fugitives, one by one, focusing mostly on those with criminal records. "There is enough here to keep me busy for the rest of my career," Simonse says, referring to the roughly 20,000 fugitive immigrants in the New York City area. "We add more (fugitives) day by day."
The continuing increase in the number of fugitives, the difficulty in tracking them and the relatively few agents assigned to do so offer a hint of the enormous challenges the government faces as it seeks to clamp down on illegal immigration.
Fugitive immigrants account for only a small fraction of the total number of illegal immigrants in the USA, which the 2000 Census estimated at 8 million. Most of them are unknown to the government. To boost the crackdown on just the known fugitives, Congress recently approved plans for DHS to hire 10,000 more border agents and 4,000 more Customs and immigration agents over the next five years.
But even if more fugitives are caught as a result, U.S. officials face other hurdles in reducing the number of illegals here:
•The immigration detention system has only 19,440 beds, and it's full. An anti-terrorism bill Congress passed last month called for expanding the system, but it's unclear how money will be allocated for that and how quickly space can be added. "We need to have (more) bed space or our efforts are fruitless," ICE spokesman Russ Knocke says.
•Much of the information about immigrant fugitives in government databases is out of date, to the point that Cerda and other U.S. immigration officials acknowledge that they aren't sure whether their estimate of 400,000 fugitives nationwide is accurate.
During the past year, government audits have suggested that as many as 100,000 of the names on the fugitives list could be deleted. Thousands of the fugitives apparently have died, fled the USA or gained legal status since their names went on the list, Cerda says.
Agents have begun to purge the rolls of incorrect names only recently, Cerda says, so other agents almost certainly have wasted time chasing ghosts. "The information just wasn't being kept up to date," Cerda says. "Nobody was tracking this stuff."
•The flow of illegal immigrants into the USA has not abated, and despite significantly tighter security along the borders with Mexico and Canada, it remains easy for illegal immigrants to enter this country through remote areas.
'Catch and release'
Thousands on the fugitives list gave themselves up to Border Patrol agents shortly after crossing into the USA from Mexico to take advantage of a controversial "catch and release" policy that U.S. immigration officials have used because of crowded detention facilities along the Southwest border.
The policy allows a captured illegal immigrant to remain free in this country if the person agrees to appear at a court hearing, which often is scheduled in a U.S. city that was the immigrant's destination. But about 86% of those who agree to show up in court do not, and they become fugitives.
Knowing they're unlikely to be jailed, thousands of immigrants have surrendered to Border Patrol agents, then have been allowed to continue their journey into America, court summonses in hand.
"It's so bad that some (illegals) are taking taxis from the border to the Border Patrol offices to turn themselves in," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents about 10,000 Border Patrol agents and staff members. "The immigration system is broken to the point where you just want to throw up your hands."
The federal commission that examined the 9/11 attacks suggested that terrorists might take advantage of gaping holes in U.S. border security to enter this country. That notion is helping drive efforts to identify and deport illegal immigrants.
Among other things, the commission found that at least two of the 19 foreigners who were suicide hijackers on 9/11 got into this country illegally, with fraudulent passports.
The hijackings put a spotlight on lax enforcement of immigration laws and prompted the government's hardened attitude toward illegals. That included the crackdown on immigrant fugitives, whose cases typically had received scant attention from the government during the past several decades.
DHS officials acknowledge that a more aggressive approach to fugitives before 9/11 probably would not have exposed the hijackers. Those on the fugitives list often have made themselves known by applying for asylum or by committing crimes; the hijackers had done neither.
Michael Garcia, DHS' assistant secretary in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also says that although the fugitive teams were created in 2003 in response to the 9/11 attacks, his agency has found no evidence that terrorists have entered the USA by exploiting security gaps along the borders. "I can't point to a case where we have found a (terrorist) group," Garcia says. "I don't mean to downplay the risk. It's a vulnerability. We can't say the risk isn't there."
Run to ground
It was still dark one morning last month when Simonse's team arrived at a small apartment complex in the Bronx in search of Vernon Miller, a native of Jamaica who had been ordered deported in 2002 after being convicted on marijuana charges. Roused from sleep, he answered the door and politely invited agents inside. Miller, a mechanic, was handcuffed and led away from the apartment where he has lived for more than a decade.
Miller was to be locked up until Jamaica's government approved his return there. A thin smile broke across his face when he was asked about coming back to the USA. "I really don't know," he said.
Twelve days after agents first showed up at the East Harlem apartment, they returned there — and finally caught Goris, whose lengthy criminal record includes convictions for assault and weapons violations.
"I can't get to every one," Simonse says. "But as we get sufficient, the numbers (of fugitives) will be reduced."
By Stephen Dinan
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published January 6, 2005
A senior House Republican yesterday called for an improved Social Security card to prevent illegal immigrants from gaining jobs and for quintupling the penalty for those who employ them, marking the first major shot in the immigration debate expected to take place in this Congress.
Another Republican committee chairman, meanwhile, is set to introduce a bill that would include some of the measures like national standards for driver's licenses that were dropped from the intelligence overhaul bill that passed Congress late last year, but which House leaders have promised to attach to the first must-pass piece of legislation this session.
Even as President Bush has renewed his call for action on the guest-worker program he proposed nearly a year ago, top Republicans in Congress seem to be moving toward stronger enforcement as their answer to the level of illegal immigration.
Under the new bill sponsored by Rep. David Dreier, California Republican and the chairman of the House Rules Committee, anyone applying for a job would have to get a new Social Security card with their photograph and biometric information on it. Employers would be required to verify a job applicant's legal status. Employers who violate the law would be fined $50,000 per instance, five times the current penalty, and the bill calls for hiring 10,000 new Homeland Security Department investigators to enforce the law.
Mr. Dreier said he first began working on this issue in the 1990s, but was a minority in his own party in pushing for the checks. Now, after September 11, he said that's changed.
"I believe the stars are aligned to where we can in fact put into place a counterproof Social Security card," he said. A companion bill will be introduced by Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.
Mr. Dreier wrote the bill with the help of T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents 11,000 non-supervisory Border Patrol agents nationwide. Mr. Bonner has estimated that cutting the supply of jobs could reduce illegal immigration by 98 percent, and also could help force those here illegally to go home.
"This is the other side of the Field of Dreams. If you build it, they will come; if you tear it down, they will go away," Mr. Bonner said.
That is just one of a flurry of immigration bills expected this month. Another bill introduced by Rep. Ken Calvert, California Republican, on Tuesday, the first day Congress was in session, would expand the voluntary pilot program that currently allows employers to verify an employee's legal status. It would be made mandatory and phased in over seven years.
Meanwhile, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, later this month will introduce the package of immigration security measures that was dropped from the intelligence overhaul bill. It would require anyone obtaining a driver's license in the United States to prove they are here lawfully, would allow judges more latitude in deciding asylum cases, would allow for easier deportation of terrorists deemed inadmissible to the country and would close a three-mile hole in the U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego.
The measure got a boost on Tuesday from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, who while opening the 109th session of Congress said the House must act to "fill those gaps" in existing law.
He has promised to attach Mr. Sensenbrenner's bill to the first "must-pass" piece of legislation Congress addresses this year -- likely an emergency spending measure to aid tsunami victims or an emergency spending bill to fund ongoing military operations in Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, hasn't made a similar promise, said a spokeswoman, though Mr. Frist has said he will look at the legislation.
Mr. Dreier said he doesn't expect his bill to be attached to Mr. Sensenbrenner's bill, since his measure would need to go through the committee process. He said instead it should be part of a broader debate of Mr. Bush's plan for guest workers.
The president has promised to spend political capital pushing for his proposal to create a renewable three-year guest-worker visa that would allow those now living abroad and illegal aliens already here to apply.
Opponents to Mr. Dreier's bill already are lining up, with the American Civil Liberties Union saying the new Social Security card amounts to a national ID -- something that riles some in both the conservative and liberal camps.
"It's a card, it's national, and it's designed to prove your identity. How can it not be a nation ID card? " said Tim Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU.
In response to Mr. Dreier, who said the new card would specifically say, "This is not a national ID card," Mr. Edgar said, "I think it's an example of how, unfortunately, some Republicans have abandoned their libertarian principles because of their zeal to attack immigrants, and are simply forced to make silly statements in order to pretend that they haven't."
Meanwhile, Joanna Hedvall, an analyst for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said Mr. Dreier's proposal would only compound the problems that already exist with the voluntary employee verification system that exists now. She said the Social Security system already has a backlog for issuing cards, and said the Homeland Security Department's employee verification is riddled with errors.
"The information in their own databases is not accurate, and the information is not transmitted to the Social Security Administration in an expedient manner," she said.
Several opponents said employer sanctions, first introduced in the immigration overhaul and amnesty bill that passed in 1986, have been tried but found lacking, arguing that Congress should instead try to write an immigration system that matches the economic situation.
But Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat and a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief, who is co-sponsoring Mr. Dreier's bill, said the problem after 1986 was a lack of manpower to enforce the employer sanctions.
"They worked, and they worked well in the areas where we had personnel to enforce them," he said.
Jan. 5, 2005, 8:17PM
House bill targets fake Social Security cards
Proposal calls for digital photo, electronic strip
By GEBE MARTINEZ
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - In what's likely the first of several plans by Congress to address immigration reform, two House members introduced a bill Wednesday targeting phony Social Security cards.
With Republicans split over how to tackle immigration reform, lawmakers aren't sure what they'll accomplish on the issue this term amid an already crowded agenda including sweeping changes for Social Security and taxes.
But sponsors of the measure, House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., and Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, vowed to ignite debate on the issue.
Under the plan, new Social Security cards would contain a digitized photo of the cardholder and an electronic signature strip that contains the person's residency status.
The National Border Patrol Council, which represents 10,000 non-supervisory Border Patrol employees, supports the bill.
"We want to deal with the problem of document fraud," which surfaced during investigations of the Sept. 11 attacks, Dreier said.
Current workers would not need to get the new card unless they apply for a new job. Employers would have to ask job applicants to present the card to verify U.S. employment eligibility.
The bill also seeks 10,000 new federal agents to help enforce the proposed controls.
"We are at a point where we need to be looking at how technology can help us better manage and better identify those who are in this country," Reyes said.
Reyes and Dreier emphasized this would not serve as a national identification card, which immigrant rights groups oppose.
A spokeswoman for one immigration advocacy group likened the plan to "a box of Band-Aids with no adhesive."
A piecemeal enforcement package will not work without major changes in the immigration system that take into account the 10 million undocumented workers in the country, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.
The House GOP leadership has promised to attach another immigration bill to the first "must pass" legislation this year, which could be a major funding bill for the war in Iraq and aid to tsunami victims.
That bill would include a national ban on issuing licenses to illegal immigrants, raise the standard of proof on those seeking asylum and close a three-mile gap in a fence along the California-Mexico border.
Whittier Daily News
Rep. Dreier backs guest worker plan
By Lisa Friedman
Wednesday, January 05, 2005 - WASHINGTON -- Rep. David Dreier said Wednesday that President Bush's plan to grant temporary legal status to undocumented workers should go "hand-in-hand' with his own sweeping proposal to ensure employers only hire legal U.S. residents.
"I believe a guest worker program is essential. We have between 8 and 14 million people here illegally. Identifying them is in our national security interest,' Dreier, R-Glendora, said at a Capitol news conference.
The Republican lawmaker has proposed creating a national employment card that anyone seeking a new job would be required to present to employers. The card would be issued by the Social Security Administration and include a digitized photo as well as an encrypted identification strip that contains a person's status in the U.S.
Employers would then be able to confirm a prospective employee's identity and legal status in a federal database operated by the Homeland Security Department. Anyone who knowingly hired an undocumented worker would face a $50,000 fine and up to five years in prison.
Dreier also said the front of the card will feature in bold letters the phrase "This is Not a National Identification Card.'
Dreier has called the bill the "Bonner Plan' after T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council. On Wednesday Bonner accompanied Dreier and co-sponsor Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, and asserted the proposal would reduce illegal border crossings by 98 percent.
Acknowledging the employment card would send scores of illegal immigrants who have long made the United States their home out of the country, Dreier added he believes "we have to have some kind of guest worker program that goes hand-in- hand with this.'
The bill calls for $100 million to enforce compliance and authorizes $50 million over five years to help states improve border protection technology. Dreier and Reyes acknowledged the key to making the proposal work is by having Congress properly fund enforcement measures.
"I believe the stars are aligned' to pass the bill, Dreier said. "We want to put together a strong bipartisan coalition to tackle this problem.'
-- Lisa Friedman can be reached at (202) 662-8731 or by e-mail at email@example.com .