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Congressional Leaders Question Efficacy of E-Verify, Call for Change

By Aliah D. Wright  7/28/2009
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Calling E-Verify a “half-hearted and flawed” system on July 21, 2009, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration, echoed the sentiments of thousands of U.S. employers who, like Schumer, support a federal electronic employment verification system that would improve on or replace the existing E-Verify system.

House members at a separate hearing on government management listened intently two days later as federal officials defended E-Verify and outlined myriad changes to the voluntary program, including the addition of a photo tool.

E-Verify began in 1997. Yet, it has proved ineffective in preventing unauthorized employment, according to the Human Resource Initiative for a Legal Workforce (HR Initiative), of which the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is a member. SHRM submitted comments on behalf of the HR Initiative during hearings in the House and Senate.

Tackling Identity Theft

On July 8, 2009, the Senate adopted an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2010 Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill that would require federal contractors to use E-Verify.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., represents the most recent attempt by Congress to show its support for mandating the use of E-Verify by all federal contractors. In 2008, then-President George W. Bush proposed an executive order that would have put such a mandate in place, but implementation was delayed after several groups, including SHRM and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, mounted a legal challenge against the government that remains pending. The two sides in the lawsuit have set Aug. 16, 2009, as the deadline to respond to motions filed with the district court.

“Despite the best efforts of the men and women who administer this program in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) department, E-Verify’s continued reliance on outdated technology and error-prone databases render it inadequate to meet the needs of mandated use,” the HR Initiative stated in a release. “In fact, we believe mandating its use would divert attention from the development of the state-of-the art employment verification system, as embodied in the New Employment Verification Act (NEVA).

“NEVA … would create an entirely electronic process to prevent identity theft and ensure a fair, efficient and secure verification process, and could eliminate virtually all unauthorized employment—thereby taking away a huge incentive for illegal immigration,” the initiative states.

One of the biggest problems with E-Verify is its inability to detect identity fraud. The Social Security Administration has said that Social Security numbers are meant to create records for benefits—not to be a means of employment identification, David A. Rust noted during one of the hearings. Rust is deputy commissioner for the Social Security Administration’s Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, whose agency oversees the administration of the nation’s social insurance programs.

Any applicant can present stolen Social Security numbers, fake certificates and fraudulently obtained photo IDs to bypass the system and gain employment, the HR Initiative points out.

This is what was discovered during the 2006 raids at several Swift & Co. meatpacking plants. All of the hundreds of employees arrested at the plants were found to have used false identities or forged paperwork. All were approved by E-Verify.

Winds of Change

Gerri Ratliff, deputy associate director of the National Security and Records Verification Directorate at USCIS, which oversees E-Verify’s records division, acknowledged before members of the House subcommittee meeting on July 23, 2009, that fraud is a problem.

“We cannot today catch every form of identify fraud,” she testified during the hearing, after Diane E. Watson, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House’s Government Management, Organization, and Procurement Subcommittee, asked what the “breakdown” was during the Swift incident.

Ratliff noted that the federal government has made changes to E-Verify—most notably adding a photo tool so employers can double-check photos against a government database. “We’re planning next year [in 2010] to put in the U.S. passport photos, but the biggest document used for the form I-9 is the driver’s license.”

However, no state has volunteered to let the government access its driver’s license records database for this purpose. Not everyone holds a passport or driver’s license.

Ratliff said USCIS is monitoring for duplicate Social Security numbers, working with the Immigration Customs Enforcement division and exploring adding a biometric component, such as fingerprints, to E-Verify.

While introducing a biometric component has raised privacy and security concerns, it is a solution supported by Schumer as well as the HR Initiative.
“Simply put,” Schumer stated, “it is not difficult for illegal workers to scam the [E-Verify] system by providing the personal information of a legal worker.” He said a “non-forgeable” biometric identifier is necessary to authenticate the identities of potential employees.

“We commend Senator Schumer for his vision and leadership—and for providing a much-needed spotlight on the problems with E-Verify,” said Michael Aitken, SHRM’s director of government affairs. “The HR Initiative has previously endorsed a voluntary use of biometrics as embodied in H.R. 2028, the ‘New Employment Verification Act,’ and will support similar measures in the Senate.”

According to USCIS, a half-million U.S. worksites use E-Verify voluntarily, out of 7.2 million employers in the United States. Studies show the system verifies about 97 percent of potential employees, prevents the employment of 2 percent who are in the U.S. illegally and rejects erroneously about 1 percent because of database errors.

Quick Link

SHRM's Director of Government Affairs Mike Aitken Discusses E-Verify on CNN

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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