DHS, Congress look to strengthen E-Verify system

Critics say the federal system is still prone to mistakes due to bad data

After a hiatus of several months, critics of the controversial E-Verify program are again voicing concerns, following recent moves by the federal Department of Homeland Security and two U.S. Senators to mandate its use in some cases to verify whether potential employees are eligible to work in the U.S.

On July 8, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that starting Sept. 8, federal contracts will be awarded only to employers that use the online E-Verify system to make sure new workers are legally in the country. Use of the E-Verify system is now voluntary for federal contractors.

Just after that announcement, Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) proposed E-Verify-related amendments to the DHS 2010 funding bill. Sessions' amendment would make E-Verify a more formal program than the temporary presidential directive it is today, while Grassley seeks to allow both the federal government and private employers to use the program to check on both new and longtime workers.

Meanwhile, four state governments -- Mississippi, South Carolina Georgia and Utah -- last month announced plans to require the use of E-Verify for certain state contracts.

The E-Verify program, run jointly by the DHS Citizen and Immigration Services unit and the Social Security Administration, is a free Internet-based system that lets employers compare job application information against DHS and SSA data.

According to the DHS, the SSA database holds some 425 million records, while the DHS immigration databases hold more than 60 million. In most cases, employers get search results in seconds. The system has processed a total of 6 million employee verification requests since last October.

While supporters of the system say it is sorely needed to weed out undocumented workers, critics argue that the program is unreliable. Critics have contended that some information stored in the SSA and DHS databases is flawed or outdated and hasn't been scrubbed or updated for several years.

The critics contend that people could be deemed ineligible to work in the U.S. due to common misspellings or because of name changes. They also contend that victims of flawed data have little recourse to challenge inaccurate results.

Other critics have contended that the database systems are not scalable enough to accommodate the rapid increase in queries expected when the new rulings take effect.

The DHS, meanwhile, contends that it has addressed such issues with regular enhancements to E-Verify, such as the addition of a photo-screening tool for biometric verification and the use of naturalization data to confirm the status of recently naturalized U.S. citizens.

Critics were somewhat muted when the a provision mandating E-Verify use was dropped from the economic stimulus bill passed earlier this year.

But the recent moves have brought the critics to the fore again.

Chris Calabrese, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, expressed dismay at the moves of both the DHS and Sens. Sessions and Grassley.

"We are going to start seeing what happens when you run a lot of American workers through an error-ridden database," Calabrese said. He said that the proposed Grassley amendment could cause long-standing employees to lose jobs because of database errors.

"We don't think an electronic employment verification system is an effective way of putting an end to undocumented workers," Calabrese said. Rather, he noted, the effort should be to "crackdown on workplace abuses" when workers are forced to work in substandard situations.

Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management, had praised the Obama administration's earlier decision but voiced concern over the recent developments. E-Verify, he said, is simply too unreliable and is "hugely susceptible" to errors resulting from the fraudulent use of Social Security numbers and other identifiers.

The trade association is not opposed to a "truly effective electronic employment verification system," Aitken said. "But we don't think E-Verify is the approach. We don't think it is ready."

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