E-Verify: Immigration Reform’s Threat To Legal Workers

Ken Nagel thought it would be no problem to hire his daughter at his Phoenix restaurant. He had not considered that Arizona’s new employment verification system, E-Verify, would deem her ineligible to work. E-Verify, which attempts to screen out unauthorized immigrants by checking employees against federal databases, failed his daughter, a U.S. citizen. “It was just another frustration,” Nagel told The Arizona Republic.

Despite its problems, Congress and the president will consider a national E-Verify mandate in immigration reform proposals this spring. President Obama called for “a system to give employers a reliable way to verify that their employees are here legally.” But E-Verify is not reliable and shifts enforcement costs onto citizens.

According to E-Verify’s government audit, a national mandate would deem 1.2 million to 3.5 million legal employees, like Ken Nagel’s daughter, initially ineligible to work. In 2008, Intel, the computer chip maker, put its new employees through E-Verify and 12 percent were declared ineligible. A firm representative told officials that resolving the errors took a “significant investment of time and money, lost productivity and many hours of confusion, worry and upset.”

The government’s numbers also project 770,000 erroneous final non-confirmations (FNCs), which require employers to fire the worker. For example, E-Verify denied employment to Juan Carlos, a naturalized U.S. citizen, after the State Department failed to notify the Social Security Administration of his status change. He lost his job and had to pay $400 for a new naturalization certificate to clear his name.

When informed of these facts, the Illinois legislature barred the state’s employers from voluntarily using E-Verify until the SSA and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can demonstrate that they could clear errors within three days. Rather than attempt to demonstrate the program’s reliability, DHS has sued the state over the law.

As the Obama administration has increased workplace fines for hiring unauthorized workers, businesses are understandably interested in a “safe harbor” from such threats. Unfortunately, E-Verify is not it. The administration is already fining employers in states that mandate E-Verify for technical violations of its regulations, which are costing employers thousands of dollars.

E-Verify forces employers to take responsibility for immigration enforcement—a governmental responsibility. A 2011 Bloomberg Government report found that a national E-Verify mandate would cost businesses $2.7 billion. “Employers have to spend money on training or staff time,” said Jason Arvelo, the report’s author. Economic research has shown employees pay these costs with lower wages.

For all the costs it imposes, employers cannot even rely on E-Verify to prevent unauthorized hires. In 2009, E-Verify’s audit found about 50 percent of them slipped through. In fact, the largest raid of unauthorized workers in U.S. history happened in 2006 against an employer that used E-Verify. “It is not a magic bullet for every kind of problem,” explained then-DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.

E-Verify’s most serious threat is to privacy. The system’s guilty-until-proven-innocent approach could be applied to any activity, not just employment, and to any area of law, not just immigration law. It would be Americans’ cyber-passport that, like a regular passport, is used to prove identity and restrict access.

Arizona and Alabama have made it unlawful to rent to unauthorized immigrants, or to transport them, or, more nebulously, “to aid” them. If it is worth imposing E-Verify’s flawed, costly system on law-abiding citizens to prevent unauthorized employment, why not unauthorized transportation, rent, or sales?

E-Verify’s application has no logical limit. If the government fails to stop illegal downloads, should they require every American to verify their identity before accessing the Internet? What about monitoring gun ownership? Do not believe that E-Verify will not succumb to the same mission creep as the Social Security card, which left its original purpose in the dust long ago.

In 1986, Congress asked for a small privacy concession from Americans: just fill out the I-9 form and hand over copies of personal identification. Now it wants a much more intrusive measure, E-Verify. When E-Verify fails to end illegal immigration, Congress will be back with a national biometric ID, as already proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

All these measures admit that the U.S. government does not believe it can create a system that stops illegal immigration at the border. Rather than admit defeat, America needs the only proven solution to the problem: an accessible legal pathway for immigrants. What it does not need is more surveillance, more regulations, and more bureaucracy between employers and employees.