E-Verify requirement in Obama stimulus plan sparks controversy

The system would be used to vet the immigration status of workers

A proposal initially included in President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package that requires entities getting federal funds or tax breaks to use the government's E-Verify program to vet the immigration status of workers is proving to be controversial.

Supporters of the idea say it is needed to prevent illegal immigrants from securing jobs paid for by the stimulus package -- especially in the construction sector, which is slated to receive $104 billion if the measure makes it through Congress intact.

But opponents to including the electronic verification component are complaining about the relative unreliability of the system and its inability to stop people from using fraudulent IDs to get work authorization.

The E-Verify system is operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Citizen and Immigration Services, together with the Social Security Administration (SSA). It is a free, voluntary Internet-based employment eligibility verification system that lets employers compare information from an employee's job application with information contained on DHS and SSA databases to determine work eligibility in the U.S.

According to a DHS description of the program, the SSA database against which the matching is done contains more than 425 million records, while the DHS's immigration databases hold more than 60 million records. In most cases, employers get search results in seconds.

Only about 100,000 employers out of more than 7 million in the U.S. are currently signed up for the program.

Recent enhancements to the system include a photo-screening tool for biometric verification and the availability of naturalization data that can confirm the citizenship status of recently naturalized U.S. citizens. As of this coming May, all federal contractors and subcontractors will have to start using the program when hiring new employees.

The version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last week by the House of Representatives, included the E-Verify mandate. But that provision has been culled from the Senate version -- prompting frantic lobbying on both sides of the issue to either put it back into the legislation or leave it out permanently.

Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington-based immigration watchdog group, estimated that failing to properly vet the employment eligibility of workers under the stimulus plan could result in a large number of undocumented workers getting taxpayer-funded jobs. That could be especially true of the construction industry, where nearly 15% of the workers are illegal immigrants, Camarota claimed.

Camarota argued that there is little reason to oppose the E-Verify program and said that concerns about its reliability have been overstated. He noted that the number of instances where the E-Verify system had mistakenly fingered a worker as being unauthorized for employment was a "tiny fraction" of the overall number of eligibility checks made by employers. In cases where mistakes are made, the process allows for remediation, Camarota said.

He was also skeptical of claims that the E-Verify system would be unable to handle a sudden large-scale increase in employment eligibility checks, noting that it already processes millions of queries. "If there are still bugs to be worked out, including the stimulus jobs would be good thing," because it would prompt quicker remediation, he said.

Other groups, including The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based public policy group, and The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) have also pushed for the use of E-Verify.

Others, however, said that mandating the system's use in the stimulus package could create problems for both employers and employees and slow the deployment of much-needed infrastructure projects.

Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a trade association in Alexandria, Va., said his organization is not opposed to having an efficient and accurate employment-verification system. But its use now could unnecessarily delay "shovel-ready" projects, he said.

Many state and local governments that would participate in the program are currently not signed up for E-Verify. Requiring each of them to sign up now and roll out new processes for procuring workers and checking eligibility would be needlessly cumbersome, Aitken said. He also expressed concerns about how the system would respond if that number were to increase dramatically as a result of a mandate.

"We don't think E-Verify can handle the massive influx of employers in such a short amount of time," he said. "We don't think it is ready from a capacity standpoint. It will take time to get the system up and ready."

Another issue would be the time needed to validate employees who are erroneously found to be ineligible for work, Aitken said. Such errors can result from something as simple as transposed digits in Social Security numbers, problems with hyphenated names, and name changes resulting from marriages, he said.

Aitken's organization sent a letter raising those issues to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday. Also backing the SHRM's position are the National Association of Manufacturers, the Association of American Universities and the HR Policy Association.

According to the DHS's own estimates, about 96% of employees are authorized for work within 24 hours, while about 4% receive initial mismatches. Less than one-half of a percent of those mismatches are later confirmed to be authorized to work, meaning the system is generally reliable in spotting mismatches.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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