Buyer beware: E-Verify's hidden costs

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E-Verify is nothing new: legislators have been championing the system, which is designed use government databases to make sure an employee is authorized to work in the United States, for nearly 15 years. In a few states, including Arizona and Alabama, employers are forced by law to use the system. Their experiences teach us that if E-Verify is implemented in the absence of immigration reform, and without adequate due process and worker protections, E-Verify is simply a costly and ineffective mistake.

In Arizona, where the state has mandated that all employers utilize the system or risk losing their business license, 1 in 3 employers do not use E-Verify. Many more have simply moved unauthorized workers off the books, depriving state and federal coffers of their payroll tax contributions.

Employers who participate in E-Verify regularly misuse the program, often without consequence. According to E-Verify’s policies, all newly hired workers are to be run through the database, not simply those who “appear to be foreign.” However, that’s just what a San Diego employer claimed to do, commenting to a reporter that he only performs a check on workers who don’t present a U.S. passport – a direct violation of E-Verify’s rules.

Proponents of E-Verify tout the program’s low error rate, which is .8 percent, by some measures. Behind this number, however, are people: According to error rates cited in a government-commissioned study, 1.2 million authorized workers will be falsely labeled as unauthorized to work in this country due to E-Verify errors. Those who are erroneously deemed ineligible to work must wade through miles of governmental red tape to correct their records, or risk losing their job.

Authorized immigrant workers are more than 30 times more likely than native born workers to be victims of an E-Verify error. Many of these people will lose wages and, potentially, their jobs before they can correct their records. These errors can be maddeningly difficult to correct. Immigrant workers have recounted being shuttled back and forth between various government agencies before locating the transposed name in Social Security or naturalization files.

These workers have precious little legal recourse if they are falsely flagged as unauthorized to work in this country. Often, an E-Verify error in the form of a final non confirmation results in losing one’s job. This happened to Jessica, a Florida born worker who was fired from a well paying job in the telecommunications industry after a clerical error led E-Verify to flag her as unauthorized to work in the country. It took her weeks to correct her record, and was only able to find another, lower paying position after months of searching.

Even E-Verify’s most ardent proponents acknowledge that our economy relies upon millions unauthorized workers who comprise significant segments of our most important industries. If E-Verify were to be implemented prior to immigration reform, our agricultural and services sectors would suffer tremendous losses of skilled immigrant labor.

Any broad immigration reform proposal likely will contain a mechanism to verify an employee’s eligibility to work in this country. However, if we fail to include due process protections for workers as well a significant reforms to labor laws to hold abusive employers accountable for their actions, we will simply repeat the mistakes made in the wake of the 1986 immigration law change, known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act.

Congress now has the opportunity to get it right when it comes to immigration law. Legislation to create a road to citizenship for the 11 million citizens in waiting should contain strong protections for immigrant workers and close the legal loophole that abusive employers currently exploit to prevent those in the workplace from speaking up in the face of labor rights violations. E-Verify may be a part of this legislation. Without these protections, the cost of E-Verify– to our economy and to our workers – is simply too great.

Tulli is testifying before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security on Wednesday. The topic of the hearing is “How E-Verify Works and How it Benefits American Employers and Workers.”