U.S. wants employers to check workers' Social Security numbers
By Juan Castillo
The Austin American Statesman, July 6, 2008
The last sweeping immigration measure passed by Congress – the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – ordered employers to maintain a record, called an I-9 form, demonstrating that they examined specific documents to check their workers' identity and work authorization.
But employers do not have to verify the authenticity of the documents themselves. That fact has led to criticism of the law's effectiveness because many illegal immigrants use fake or stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs.
Now, federal immigration enforcement officials are aggressively marketing E-Verify, a voluntary Internet program that allows employers to verify workers' Social Security numbers against millions of records in Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases.
Nationwide, more than 69,000 employers have signed on to use E-Verify – of late at a rate of about 1,000 new businesses a week, the government says. That is still a fraction of the estimated 7.4 million employers nationwide.
Homeland security touts E-Verify as the best means for determining eligibility of new hires and says 94 percent of queries are verified within a few seconds. More than 99 percent of all legal workers checked through E-Verify were verified without receiving a nonconfirmation, said Veronica Nur Valdes, a Homeland Security spokeswoman.
But the U.S. Government Accountability Office says that while E-Verify may help employers detect fraudulent documents, it cannot fully address the use of genuine documents by someone other than their rightful owner. E-Verify is also vulnerable to acts of employer fraud and misuse, the accountability office said in a June report.
'The system is not ready for prime time.' said Craig Regelbrugge, a spokesman for U.S. farm labor interests who is based in Washington.
Some employers also worry that firing an employee based on an erroneous search result could lead to a discrimination charge. The 1986 law prohibits discrimination in hiring and firing on the basis of citizenship status or national origin.
Homeland security is also pushing to require employers to fire workers who can't resolve discrepancies in their Social Security number after 93 days. Called the 'no-match rule,' it is blocked by a California federal judge's injunction.
For years, the Social Security Administration has sent employers letters when employees' names or numbers did not match government records. Some employers just threw the letters away, said Julie Myers, the assistant secretary of homeland security for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under the proposed rule, homeland security would also send 'no-match' letters guiding employers on what to do in such cases and outlining penalties for hiring workers who do not resolve discrepancies.
In arguing against the plan, business and civil rights advocates say that it is not fraud-proof and that it could harm legitimate workers, like those who change their name in a divorce or marriage but forget to notify Social Security. Legal workers might end up getting fired before they can navigate federal red tape and prove that they are authorized to work, critics say.
The protests are overblown, government officials say. The majority of people who trigger E-Verify mismatches or 'no-match' letters don't try to contest them, and most are presumed not to have legitimate documents, Valdes said.
But are illegal workers caught in the Social Security checks likely to give up and leave the country?
Probably not, said Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform .
'What you'll probably get is simply a mass migration where the workers leave farmer Jones and go to work for farmer Smith and vice versa, and everybody tries to stay one step ahead of the thing,' Regelbrugge said.
Richie Jackson, chief executive of the Texas Restaurant Association, said workers who take their false documents from one job to the next will create turnover in a growing industry that will be hard-pressed to fill jobs. The population of native-born workers between the ages of 18 and 24 – a prime demographic in the industry's work force – will decline by 7.5 percent during the next 10 years, Jackson said.
Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist, estimates that 13 percent of the retail and restaurant work force in Texas is undocumented.
A bill in a U.S. House committee would require all employers to participate in E-Verify and to fire anyone who cannot prove his or her right to work.
With E-Verify, too many errors to expand its use?
Database aims to make it easy for employers to check worker immigration status. Critics say the accuracy rate is too low.
By Alexandra Marks
The Christian Science Monitor, July 7, 2008
New York — Two hours after Fernando Tinoco started his new job at a meatpacking plant in Chicago, he was escorted by security guards to the office and fired.
The reason: Company officials had entered his Social Security number into the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system. It's a mostly voluntary program designed to give employers a fast, easy way to check a person's immigration status. Mr. Tinoco's information came back as a 'tentative non-confirmation,' meaning that he may not be a citizen. He was shown the door.
But Tinoco is a citizen and has been since 1989. Immediately after his firing a few months ago, he went to a Social Security office and got a letter confirming his legal status. It was too late.
'I went back and the security guard chased me away, told me not to come back to the company because I was fired,' he says in a phone interview.
President Bush's recent executive order mandating that all federal contractors use E-Verify and legislation pending in Congress that would make the program mandatory for all employers nationwide have heightened concerns among critics that thousands of legal Americans will be unfairly denied jobs. That's because E-Verify relies mainly on the Social Security database, which the Government Accountability Office has found to be fraught with errors. Studies have also shown that almost half of employers who are already using E-Verify are not abiding by rules designed to protect citizens like Tinoco.
Advocates acknowledge that E-Verify's 94 percent accuracy rate could be improved, but they insist that its benefits outweigh any imperfections. They contend that it's an easy, straightforward way for employers to comply with immigration law. Better education of employers can ensure it's used properly, they say.
In the middle are many immigration experts and economists. Worksite enforcement, they say, is crucial to controlling illegal immigration. But they also note that America's current immigration system is broken and not meeting the needs of the economy. That's why there's a steady flow of illegal, low-wage workers entering the US. These experts are concerned that imposing E-Verify nationwide now without broad immigration reform would severely damage the economy.
'We have significant sectors of the economy that need large numbers of low-skill workers, yet we don't have legal channels for these immigrants to come in,' says Judy Gans, manager of immigration policy at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. 'The question is: What are we doing to the economy by imposing worksite enforcement before the legal channels are there to meet the economy's needs?'
E-Verify used to be called the Basic Pilot/Employment Eligibility Verification program. It was created by Congress in 1997 as a voluntary pilot program to give employers an electronic way to verify employees' Social Security numbers. It's now operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration and is used by almost 70,000 employers nationwide. It's currently voluntary, except in a handful of states like Arizona.
Other states are wary of E-Verify. Illinois even has a law forbidding employers from using it because of concerns about its accuracy, although the state has agreed not to enforce its law until a court case challenging it is resolved. California legislators are considering a similar ban on the use of the program.
E-Verify advocates say the program has enough safeguards to protect citizens. Workers who are given a 'tentative non-confirmation' meaning there's a problem with their Social Security number have eight working days to clear up discrepancies in the government's database, they note. And employers who use E-Verify are held harmless it if turns out they unknowingly hired an illegal immigrant.
'If you're an employer, you're no longer required to be a document expert,' says Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. 'With E-Verify, you can tap into an automated Internet database that runs against almost 500 million records. It's fast, easy, and free to use. What's not to like?'
Critics have found quite a bit not to like. They note that a study commissioned by DHS itself found that for every thousand names put into the system, 58 come back as tentative nonconfirmation. Of those, about five people successfully contest the finding that they're not legally eligible to work in the US. DHS officials and advocates like Mr. Dane believe that means the other 53 applicants are probably illegal and the system is discouraging them as it should. But critics note that there's no way to know if those 53 were in the US illegally. The study commissioned by DHS also found that a substantial number of employers did not follow the E-Verify rules designed to protect citizens.
'We really don't know what the situation is with that 5.3 percent [who don't contest their tentative nonconfirmations],' says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.
He did an analysis using the same Social Security database that E-Verify uses. The government acknowledges that the database has an error rate of 4.1. That means that about 17 million people's names may not be exactly correct or there was an error when the information, like date of birth, was entered. Though they are here legally, those residents would come back as 'tentative non-confirmations.'
'As a matter of simple math, that means that if E-Verify were to go national, on the first day 1 in 25 legal new hires would be bounced out of the system and asked to go down to the Social Security office and straighten out the problem,' he says.
That raises Mr. Harper's broader concerns about the program that it would encourage employers and workers to operate 'under the table' and that it could prompt even more identity theft and document fraud. 'Conservatives are supposed to want people to work not on welfare, not working under the table,' he says. 'Here's a system where we really don't know what's happening with 5.3 percent, but it looks like more than 1 in 100 lawful employees are being sent packing.'
But supporters argue that clearing up discrepancies in the Social Security database is a 'public service.' They say there could be some initial disruptions to the economy, including a substantial loss of tax revenue from illegal workers who are now paying taxes. But they argue there will be long-term benefits to the economy.
'Of course some portion of illegals working on the books will stop doing so and either start working under the table or go home,' says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. 'Either one is going to result in their no longer paying taxes. But enforcing the law is supposed to get those people out of their jobs: They're not here legally.'