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GAO: E-Verify Can’t Eliminate Identity Fraud

By Rita Zeidner  7/14/2008
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Federal immigration authorities, fixated on reducing illegal immigration, are increasingly aiming their enforcement efforts at employers.

In a report to Congress, Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), reiterated long-standing criticisms of E-Verify, the electronic employment verification system managed jointly by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Social Security Administration (SSA).

“E-Verify may help employers detect fraudulent documents thereby reducing such fraud, but it cannot yet fully address identity fraud issues,” Stana said.

Some steps have already been taken to begin to close the gap, and more are being planned. 

A new branch under Homeland Security’s Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been established specifically to review employers’ use of the E-Verify program. USCIS is now staffing and implementing monitoring and compliance activities, Stana said.

Information suggesting employer fraud or misuse of the system “could be useful to other DHS components in targeting worksite enforcement resources and promoting employer compliance with employment laws,” he noted.

In addition, while data sharing activities among various divisions of DHS have been “infrequent and informal,” Stana said, various bureaus are negotiating a memorandum of understanding to define roles, responsibilities and mechanisms for sharing E-Verify data and developing a system for tracking cases. 

But there are lingering problems with E-Verify, Stana said. For instance a 2007 evaluation of the program showed that some employers joining an Internet-based employment verification process are not handling their employees’ personal information appropriately. For instance, some employers did not inform employees privately that queries of the employees’ information through E-Verify resulted in tentative nonconfirmations. The report pointed out that anyone wanting access to the system could pose as an employer and obtain access by signing an agreement with the E-Verify program.

USCIS officials say that taking actions to ensure that employers are legitimate when they register for E-Verify is a long-term goal for the program. But implementing such controls to verify employer authenticity might require additional coordination between federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, which issues employee identification numbers.

States Still Resist Photo ID Plans

Meanwhile, state motor vehicle departments have resisted DHS proposals that would make photo files accessible to employers for verification purposes.

“It remains to be seen whether USCIS will be able to fully address all privacy concerns related to data and photograph sharing and use among agencies and employers,” Stana said.

As of April 2008, more than 61,000 employers had registered for the voluntary E-Verify system, according to GAO. About half were active users.

Were E-Verify to become mandatory, as some policy makers have urged, employers would enter a projected 63 million queries into the system annually, according to Homeland Security. A test of the system suggests it could process up to 240 million queries per year with the purchase of five additional servers. In addition, operating a mandatory E-Verify program would require additional federal funds. Although Homeland Security has not prepared official cost figures, authorities estimate that a mandatory program could cost nearly $800 million for 2009 through 2012 if only newly hired employees are queried and about $838 million over the same four-year period if newly hired and current employees are queried.

Also, mandatory E-Verify would require additional SSA staffing and resources. The benefits agency has estimated that mandatory E-Verify would cost it $281 million for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 and require hiring 700 employees. Officials estimated that under a mandatory expansion of the program, for every 100 E-Verify queries, about 1.4 individuals will contact SSA regarding a tentative nonconfirmation.

The majority of E-Verify queries entered by employers—about 92 percent—result in seconds with confirmation that the employee is authorized to work. About 7 percent of queries are not confirmed by the initial automated check and result in SSA tentative nonconfirmations, while about 1 percent result in DHS tentative nonconfirmations. According to SSA, the majority of erroneous tentative nonconfirmations occur because employees’ citizenship status or other information, such as name changes, are not up to date in the SSA database, generally because individuals have not notified SSA of information changes.

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