Concerns grow with program to weed out illegal workers

From the Sacramento Business Journal

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Concerns grow with program to weed out illegal workers

Big jump in its use expected as federal mandate kicks in

California businesses ran twice as many electronic employment verification queries last year than the year before, as more employers begin using a controversial program to weed out illegal workers.

The “E-Verify” program was used voluntarily by more than 370,700 job sites in the state, up 163 percent from 140,906 in fiscal 2007.

The numbers are expected to increase significantly next month. A June executive order requires companies with federal contracts to begin using the program in January to verify their employees’ eligibility to work in the United States.

“Awareness is obviously greater than it was before because of the (looming) federal mandate,” said Al Sirato, president of Hire-Safe, a Campbell-based company that does background checks, pre-employment screening and helps employers with E-Verify. “We’re seeing an uptick.”

Participation by employers nationwide grew 260 percent last year to verify more than 10 percent of the nation’s new hires, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“It’s growing by about 1,000 companies a week,” said Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman with the federal agency in San Francisco.

So are concerns about the program as the federal deadline looms.

Error rates are too high and cause undue anguish, some say. Employers who don’t know all the rules can run into legal trouble if they fire workers inappropriately or appear to discriminate against some job applicants.

While free, the system requires record keeping that could be onerous to small employers — and very small businesses might not have computers to run it.

At least one group that supports voluntary use of the program is considering a legal challenge to the mandate.

“Most of us have supported voluntary status, but think it’s up to Congress to decide on a federal mandate,” said Angelo Amador, a member of the steering committee for the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition in Washington, D.C.

Also looming is the debate over program reauthorization by Congress in March, when new members and the Obama administration will weigh in on the issue.

Debate, raids spur sign-ups

E-Verify is an Internet-based system operated by the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with the Social Security Administration.

The program started as a pilot in California, Florida, Illinois, New York and Texas in 1997. It was expanded nationwide in late 2004, but few employers used the service.

That changed during national debate over immigration reform in 2006. High-profile raids by federal agents on employers late that year brought a surge of interest in the screening program.

Participation jumped in California from 3,064 work sites in 2006 to 17,387 in 2007. Nationally, it soared from 5,930 in 2006 to 140,906 in 2007.

“Surveys show high satisfaction, both in accomplishing what it set out to do — help employers identify illegal aliens rather than being duped by false Social Security numbers — and because it is easy to use,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington D.C., an anti-immigration group.

Some employers participate because they think it’s the right thing to do. Others do because clients or corporate owners demand it.

“What it’s done over time, potential employees realize you check,” said Tony Hardin, director of operations for MTC Restaurant Group, a Campbell-based franchisee of Togo’s restaurants. “We’ve had the system up for years and get less people applying. Ninety-seven percent are OK. Before, it was Russian roulette.”

Business leaders, unions wary

“Feedback from our membership about the program has been mixed,” CalChamber spokeswoman Christine Haddon wrote in an e-mail.

The chamber is concerned about errors in E-Verify, referring to a 2006 study by the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration that concluded the database used by the program contains discrepancies that might give employers wrong information.

A recent study conducted by Westat, a social science research firm that monitors the effect of changes to E-Verify, found that between April and June wrong denials dropped to 0.4 percent from 0.5 percent, according to USCIS.

The National Federation of Independent Business remains concerned about how quickly and efficiently a government-run, nationwide electronic verification system can be put in place and how small businesses will be treated under the system.

“We’re seeing a lot of questions from members about ‘Do I need to use it?’ and ‘How does it work?’ ” said Karen Harned, executive director of the Small Business Legal Center in Washington, D.C. “We are trying to make sure employers know everything they are agreeing to when they sign up.”

“The issue is touchy for us,” said Sylvia Ruiz, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 1877, which represents janitors and other low-wage workers, many of them immigrants.

“(E-Verify) relies on a database that’s out-of-date and prone to errors,” Ruiz said, adding that the way employers use it might set them up for legal action if there are violations of worker rights.

The program relies on information from an overburdened Social Security Administration that “has a statistically high rate of inaccurate data,” said Mark Reichel, a Sacramento civil rights attorney who serves on the board of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We’re talking about creating a ‘No Work List’ like the ‘No Fly List,’ ” he said.

“If they require uniform application nationwide, the numbers of errors will go up,” he said. “Even a low rate, in these tough economic times, will mean many workers will not be able to get ahead or will lose a job.”

Similar to other trade groups, the California Restaurant Association is looking for direction from its national counterpart in Washington, California president Jot Condie said.

E-Verify puts some significant burdens on smaller restaurants, some of which might not have a computer on-site, Condie said. And, depending on the accuracy and support of the program, it could create problems between employers and employees, he said.

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