Obama could ramp up E-Verify
Immigration reform poised to elevate controversial system
The E-Verify program, a system that enables employers to confirm the legal residence of new hires, continues to frustrate critics and supporters with its patchy progress this year.
But that could change if President Barack Obama makes it a critical piece of an upcoming overhaul of immigration policies.
Praised by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, E-Verify recently won key reauthorizations from the House and a Senate committee to continue operation as a Web-based system that allows employers to easily verify that their employees are eligible to work in the United States. The House measure approved a two-year authorization, while the Senate committee recommended extending it to three years.
Napolitano, whom Obama recently designated his lead for immigration reform legislation, has said she would seek additional money to expand E-Verify. “E-Verify is a smart, simple and effective tool that reflects our continued commitment to working with employers to maintain a legal workforce," she said. Legislatures in 12 states have passed bills that mandate E-Verify use for specific groups of workers, such as state employees.
But the program has been the subject of persistent mixed messages and setbacks. Debate continues over whether E-Verify should be mandatory and whether its error rates and other shortcomings cause harm to U.S. workers by contributing to job discrimination and job losses.
In June, the Obama administration postponed for the fourth time the implementation of a controversial Bush administration executive order that would make E-Verify mandatory for millions of federal contractor employees. Under that order, about 168,000 federal contractors were to begin using E-Verify for contracts of more than $100,000 and subcontracts of more than $3,000.
Originally scheduled for January, the administration delayed enforcement to Sept. 8. The White House said it needed more time to analyze the order in light of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other parties. Napolitano promised in early July that the administration would “push ahead with full implementation” of the E-Verify rule for federal contractors on Sept. 8.
Overall, the outlook for E-Verify is mixed. “We are getting cross-cutting signals on E-Verify,” said Josh Temple, homeland security analyst at Input, a market research firm in Reston, Va. “We have Secretary Napolitano saying she’s strongly in favor of E-Verify, but at the same time, Obama is putting it off.”
In addition, the stalled economy might have dampened enthusiasm for programs such as E-Verify that could be seen as an impediment to job growth, Temple suggested.
Another battle front is developing as well. In the Senate, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, has criticized E-Verify because it cannot flag stolen or borrowed Social Security numbers. Schumer said the system should incorporate biometrics to cross-check the numbers as part of an effort to catch identity thieves.
But policy experts say that approach might backfire. “Schumer will help E-Verify in the short term, but he will hurt it in the long run because he's helping to make clear that it requires a national biometric identification system to run it,” said Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington.
It is not clear how hard the Obama administration or Congress will push to make E-Verify mandatory, said Jennifer Kerber, vice president of federal and homeland security policy at TechAmerica, a trade organization for information technology companies.
“I don’t know if E-Verify will become mandatory but perhaps it can be used for competitive advantage,” Kerber said. “Eventually, if you reduce the error rate and deal with privacy concerns and prevent identity fraud, it would be a great system.”
Jena McNeill, homeland security policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said mandatory E-Verify is not likely. “But E-Verify has a future because a key centerpiece of the Obama administration’s immigration proposals has been an emphasis on making sure that employers are not hiring illegal immigrants.”
E-Verify had a quiet history as a voluntary program used by a few thousand employers until President Bush renamed it and made it a priority. Now 122,000 employers use it. Arizona, where Napolitano previously served as governor, is one of the states that has made it mandatory to some degree.
Under E-Verify, employers electronically submit Social Security numbers for new hires and existing employees. If there is a match, an employee is eligible for work. Otherwise, the employee receives a tentative nonconfirmation, and the employee may pursue redress with the Social Security Administration.
The system has been criticized for errors in the databases. Napolitano said in May that recent surveys showed 96.1 percent of cases queried through the system authorized the employees for work, and 3.9 percent showed a tentative non-confirmation. Also, only 0.4 percent of total applicants successfully contested an adverse initial decision.
Critics, such as Angelo Amador, executive director of immigration policy at the Chamber of Commerce, said those survey results are unrealistic because they are based on self-selected volunteers. Other surveys show much higher rates. A study by Intel in 2008 found a 13 percent initial error rate in its E-Verify queries. All were eventually cleared after substantial efforts, the company said.
The chamber said Congress intended the program to be voluntary, and if it becomes mandatory — and errors lead to firings of workers and lawsuits — there should be protections for employers and employees, Amador said.
E-Verify recently added a photo screening tool to reduce document fraud and established a branch to oversee employers using E-Verify to protect employee rights. It also added new database checks to further reduce initial mismatches.
Still, even a 3.9 percent nonconfirmation rate is politically risky. “Four percent is a lot of people in a population of 140 million workers,” Amador said. “That is 2 million people not able to get a job based on the database. If that is fine with the government, then there should be protections.”
But Heritage's McNeill is more hopeful. “There will always be folks who use ‘it needs further improvement’ as a reason to derail E-Verify. But the fact is that it remains one of the best tools we have," she said.
Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.