February 15, 2009, 10:19 AM — A provision that would have forced employers who get money federal stimulus money to first vet the employment status of their workers using the federal E-Verify program has been stripped from the final version of the US$787 billion spending package .
The move is a victory for those who called the E-Verify requirement unnecessary and said it would seriously delay numerous projects, especially "shovel-ready" ones in the construction sector. But it is likely to come as a disappointment to those who felt the provision would prevent illegal immigrants from getting stimulus jobs paid for by taxpayer dollars.
Also excised from the final conference report was a provision that would have extended the E-Verify program beyond March. 6, when it is set to expire. An extension could still be included in other legislation before the program ends.
The E-Verify system is run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Citizen and Immigration Services, together with the Social Security Administration (SSA). It is a free Internet-based employment eligibility verification system that lets employers compare information from an employee's job application with data from the DHS and SSA 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' 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 E-Verify system include a photo-screening tool for biometric verification and naturalization data that can be used to confirm the citizenship status of recently naturalized U.S. citizens. All federal contractors and subcontractors were supposed to start using the program this May under the assumption that it will be renewed.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Friday described the E-Verify system as a "flawed" verification program. Including E-Verify in the stimulus bill would have held Americans "hostage to bad government data and even worse government database systems," said Tim Sparapani, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU. He noted that the databases on which the E-Verify program is based are outdated and flawed.
"The reason why we don't have mandatory verification is because the government hasn't done the hard work of going back and scrubbing those databases clean" of flawed and outdated information, he said. Neither has there been any effort to build system for helping out individuals erroneously identified by the system as being ineligible to work in the U.S., he said.
E-Verify opponents said its use made the employment verification process unreliable and would not have stopped people from using fraudulent IDs to get work authorization. They had also noted that many state and local governments have not signed up for the program, meaning they would have had to roll out cumbersome new processes for hiring workers and checking eligibility. Questions were also raised about the system's ability to handle a sudden surge in e-verification requests.
Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a trade association in Alexandria, Va., praised the decision to drop the requirement from the stimulus package. But he said it should still be extended beyond March 6. "SHRM is not supportive of letting it expire," Aitken said, stressing that the focus should be on making it more reliable.
Those reliability issues are overblown, according to E-Verify backers. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a Washington-based immigration watchdog group, said dropping the verification requirement was a mistake, both from a policy and a political sense. "As a policy matter, when you are spending $900 [sic] billion on job creation it should be for Americans and legal immigrants and not illegal aliens," he said.
Krikorian said that doubts about the scalability of the E-Verify system were flat-out misleading. "They have the hardware and the software capacity right now to screen all new hires. It is happening right now," he said.
He also insisted that the number of instances where the E-Verify system had mistakenly identified someone as being ineligible for a job constituted a very small portion of the overall eligibility checks made by employers. "If they were a lot of Americans being somehow turned down, I guarantee that 60 Minutes and others would have been all over it," he said.
According to the DHS' 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.