E-Verify needs to be improved, Obama says

System can be an important immigration enforcement tool if not "riddled with errors," the president said at a White House press conference

The Internet-based E-Verify employment eligibility system can be an important enforcement tool in the fight against illegal immigration, but only if it can be made error-free and reliable, President Obama said on Wednesday.

Speaking at a White House press conference on Wednesday morning, Obama said E-Verify still needs to be perfected and safeguards put into place to protect against individuals being mistakenly identified as ineligible to work in the U.S.

"We don't want to expose employers to the risk where they end up rejecting a qualified candidate for a job because [E-Verify] says that the person is an illegal immigrant," Obama said. "The goal right now is to see if we can perfect the E-Verify system."

E-Verify is a controversial online system that is designed to let employers quickly verify the employment eligibility and immigration status of those seeking work in the U.S.

It lets employers compare information from an employee's job application with information contained in databases with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Social Security Administration (SSA).

The SSA database against which the matching is done contains more than 455 million records currently, while the DHS's immigration databases hold more than 80 million records. Results are available in less than a day.

Supporters of E-Verify have claimed that it is critically needed to prevent illegal immigrants from securing U.S jobs, especially those funded by federal stimulus funds. Earlier this month, Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee proposed a bill that would make E-Verify mandatory for all employers and employees within three years of enactment.

Currently more than 250,000 American employers have signed up voluntarily for E-Verify, with another 1,300 new businesses signing up each week, Smith said in a statement announcing his proposed bill.

E-Verify's many opponents, however, argue that the underlying databases are far too unreliable and error-filled to be much use.

Those opposed to E-Verify have maintained that the system improperly flags a large number of eligible workers as being ineligible for U.S. employment. Many have also expressed concern over the scalability of the system.

Up to now, E-Verify has been a mostly voluntary program, but that is changing. All federal contractors and subcontractors, for instance, are required to use E-Verify to vet the employment eligibility of their workers.

Several states and local governments are also moving towards making E-Verify mandatory for employers. Just last week, North Carolina passed a law that requires all local governments and private employers with more than 25 employees to eventually start using E-Verify. All state agencies as well as public universities and community colleges in the state are already required to use the system.

Another state that requires the mandatory use of E-Verify for vetting new hires is Arizona. The state passed the requirement in 2007 but was challenged from implementing it by the ACLU and business groups. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona is within its rights to require employers in the state to use E-Verify.

Obama's comments on E-Verify were made in response to a reporter's question asking if he would be willing to veto a mandatory E-Verify bill unless it was made part of a broader immigration reform plan.

Though Obama's response did not directly address the question, he stressed the need for comprehensive immigration reform. That means tougher border security, and tougher actions against employers caught hiring illegal workers, he said.

"E-Verify can be an important enforcement tool if it is not riddled with errors," Obama said. "What I don't want is a situation in which employers are forced to set up a system that they can't be certain works."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at  @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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