Lawmakers ponder next step for E-Verify

The House has begun to debate the effectiveness of the Homeland Security Department’s electronic employment eligibility verification system, E-Verify. Some lawmakers are considering making it mandatory for all employers while others are pushing for an alternate system.

Proponents say E-Verify allows employers to accurately confirm whether or not employees can legally work in the United States. However, critics say errors in the Social Security Administration database against which queries are checked could cause the system to wrongly reject employees.

Others contend that DHS should focus on national security and not on tracking the employment eligibility of American workers.

About 69,000 employers have voluntarily registered to use E-Verify to confirm that their employees can legally work in the United States. The program began in 1996 as a pilot effort, and several states have made the process mandatory.

“E-Verify is not perfect — no system is — but it is a very good system that has safeguards to ensure that employers’ and employees’ rights are being protected in accordance with the law,” Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) said today during a hearing by the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law Subcommittee.

Calvert has introduced legislation that would make the program mandatory and extend it for 10 more years. Its authorization is set to expire later this year, and the Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over several pieces of legislation aimed at expanding or overhauling the program.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), whose state has made E-Verify mandatory for employers, said companies have complained about several aspects of the system that legislators should consider.

As an alternative to E-Verify, Giffords supports legislation that would not require the use of paper-based I-9 forms to verify identities, which identity thieves could exploit, according to some experts. That measure would give SSA an expanded role in employment verification.

However, opponents say the law would essentially entail re-creating the E-Verify system.

At the hearing, Jonathan Scharfen, acting director of DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs the E-Verify program, said the system was accurate and that the government had the capacity to make it a national program.

However, several witnesses told stories of valid workers whom the system did not confirm and the impact it had on their careers.

A report from the Government Accountability Office released today estimates that a mandatory E-Verify program would cost about $765 million from fiscal 2009 through 2012 to verify only new employees and $838 million to verify new and existing employees in the same period. In addition, SSA has estimated that a mandatory program would cost $281 million for fiscal 2009 to 2013 and require an additional 2,325 employees.

Government auditors also said E-Verify could help employers reduce fraud but that the system was vulnerable to acts of fraud and misuse.

On June 6, the Bush administration issued an executive order saying that all companies hired to perform work for federal agencies must use an electronic verification system to ensure that their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States. On June 9, the Homeland Security Department designated its online E-Verify system for use in the verification process.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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