There’s Good Reason Behind the Controversy over E-Verify

Monday, December 5, 2011

Gov. Chris Gregoire and a group of farm-group representatives recently made headlines when they returned from Washington D.C., where they had sought to persuade Congress to oppose a bill requiring employers to use a system called E-Verify.  In stern words, Gov. Gregoire criticized the measure and its likely detrimental effect on our state’s agriculture industry. 

“All we’re going to do is penalize employers.  We’re going to lose jobs, and we don’t have any way to get those jobs back,” she said in a media interview.  “Now why — in this recession, as hard-hit as we are — would we, the state of Washington, support that?”  Gov. Gregoire went so far as to declare an unofficial farm-labor crisis in Washington, particularly within the state’s economically important apple orchards, that she attributed to recent immigration enforcement efforts, including E-Verify.

The governor’s comments raised the profile of a controversial program that has been of great concern to advocates for immigrant and civil rights.  The federal E-Verify system, which is now used by almost 300,000 employers nationally, uses an employee’s Social Security number and immigrant identification information to determine a worker’s eligibility to work in the United States. 

Employers enter a prospective employee’s name into an Internet-based system operated jointly by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.  The program then categorizes the worker as authorized or offers a “non-confirmation,” which if not corrected or resolved by the employee, will lead to his or her termination.

It sounds simple in theory.  And don’t we all (or at least many of us) love technological solutions to complex problems?  But in practice, the E-Verify system is badly flawed.  A 2010 report by the Government Accounting Office found that errors in the system led to an estimated 80,000 Americans being denied their legal right to work. 

If pending legislation sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) were adopted, every prospective employee would have to be checked against E-Verify’s error-prone system before being hired.  Should E-Verify be made mandatory nationwide, the number of workers erroneously targeted would balloon to an estimated 770,000, with errors having a disproportionate impact on immigrants, including U.S. citizens.  And correcting the database would cause an enormous ripple impact on the Social Security Administration, where the wait for 30% of its cases already exceeds a half-year.

The government mechanism to fix such errors is Kafkaesque.  There is currently no court remedy to force Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fix an error.  Many times those errors are as simple as an incorrect data entry or name change.  But in order to uncover the error, workers have to file letters with different parts of the agency seeking copies of their records.  This cumbersome process often delays employment for months.

Another concern is privacy and identity theft.  E-Verify creates one of the largest and most widely accessible databases ever created in the U.S.  Hundreds of millions of records have been hacked, lost or disclosed in the past decade.  Data breaches are a contributing factor to identity theft and E-Verify is a prime candidate to exacerbate this problem.

Further, E-Verify simply doesn’t work to fulfill its intended purpose.  Another 2010 report, an audit conducted for the government by the research group Westat, found that E-Verify failed to detect workers not allowed to work in the U.S. a whopping 54% of the time. 

Opposition to the use of E-Verify is far from limited to the ACLU and kindred organizations.  In late November, Yakima County commissioners voted to not have the county use E-Verify, after they had ordered a review of how best to determine the legal status of workers. In September, an open letter from leaders of Tea Party Nation, Downsize DC, GOProud and other conservative groups called on Congress to reject the bill mandating use of E-Verify.  They cited its creation of a de facto national ID system, its requiring employers to become enforcement agents of the federal government and its job-killing regulatory burden, as well as its violation of the right to work and its invitation to identity theft. 

In California, a new state law signed in October prohibits the state, cities and counties from mandating that private employers use E-Verify — a move Washington could emulate.

As a Los Angeles Times editorial put it, mandating E-Verify “wouldn’t provide American businesses with a legal workforce.  It would merely drive millions of undocumented workers further underground, where unscrupulous employers can more easily exploit them.”  And, added the Times, “It could actually cost small-business owners nearly $2.7 billion to implement, according to a Bloomberg News report.

In short, subjecting all working Americans to an untrustworthy data system that puts them at risk of identity theft is not what our troubled economy needs.  And it is not an answer to our ailing immigration system.  That would take comprehensive reform that respects privacy and due process rights.


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