E-Verify Program Confirming Workers’ Legal Status Grows in Popularity

Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2009

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More than 124,000 businesses, including nearly 10,000 in California, are signed up for the Web-based identification program that enables employers to check whether an employee is authorized to work, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Among the employers enrolled in the state are restaurants, hospitals and temporary employment agencies.

Last week the Obama administration announced that it wanted Congress to allocate $12 million more to the program in the next fiscal year, bringing its budget to $112 million. And Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a congressional hearing that the program was “a cornerstone of workplace enforcement across the country.”

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Napolitano said the government planned to improve the accuracy of the databases and strengthen the training of employers to protect workers against discrimination.

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At the end of June, all federal contractors and subcontractors will be required to begin using it. Last fiscal year, more than 6.6 million names were checked under the program, according to the citizenship agency.

E-Verify is an effective way to attack the jobs magnet for illegal immigrants, said Roy Beck, executive director of Numbers USA, which favors stricter controls on immigration. Beck said he hoped the increase in funding would result in more employers signing up.

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But Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at think tank the Center for American Progress, said E-Verify was not “ready for prime time.”

“Supporters frame this as an immigration enforcement solution,” she said. “It’s really American workers having to ask the government for permission to work.”

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Business groups generally support E-Verify but criticize the error rate. The government reports that the program has a 96% accuracy rate. But even a small error rate could disqualify millions of workers if the program were to be expanded to the entire workforce, said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Despite that, many businesses want to be on the right side of the law and are willing to try out the system if it helps protect them from inadvertently hiring undocumented workers, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of employers.

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That’s why many agricultural companies haven’t signed on, said Bryan Little, director for labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau. Little said he worried about having enough people to work the fields.

“It’s not in our benefit to hire illegal workers,” he said. “The way the marketplace looks right now, farmers don’t have a better option available to them.”

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