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With E-Verify, too many errors to expand its use?

Database aims to make it easy for employers to check worker immigration status. Critics say the accuracy rate is too low.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 2008

Raid: Federal immigration agents detained at least 120 workers at a plant in Houston last month. The immigration status of workers is a key concern for many employers.

AP/file

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Two hours after Fernando Tinoco started his new job at a meatpacking plant in Chicago, he was escorted by security guards to the office and fired.

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The reason: Company officials had entered his Social Security number into the Department of Homeland Security's E-Verify system. It's a mostly voluntary program designed to give employers a fast, easy way to check a person's immigration status. Mr. Tinoco's information came back as a "tentative non-confirmation," meaning that he may not be a citizen. He was shown the door.

But Tinoco is a citizen and has been since 1989. Immediately after his firing a few months ago, he went to a Social Security office and got a letter confirming his legal status. It was too late.

"I went back and the security guard chased me away, told me not to come back to the company because I was fired," he says in a phone interview.

President Bush's recent executive order mandating that all federal contractors use E-Verify and legislation pending in Congress that would make the program mandatory for all employers nationwide have heightened concerns among critics that thousands of legal Americans will be unfairly denied jobs. That's because E-Verify relies mainly on the Social Security database, which the Government Accountability Office has found to be fraught with errors. Studies have also shown that almost half of employers who are already using E-Verify are not abiding by rules designed to protect citizens like Tinoco.

Advocates acknowledge that E-Verify's 94 percent accuracy rate could be improved, but they insist that its benefits outweigh any imperfections. They contend that it's an easy, straightforward way for employers to comply with immigration law. Better education of employers can ensure it's used properly, they say.

In the middle are many immigration experts and economists. Worksite enforcement, they say, is crucial to controlling illegal immigration. But they also note that America's current immigration system is broken and not meeting the needs of the economy. That's why there's a steady flow of illegal, low-wage workers entering the US. These experts are concerned that imposing E-Verify nationwide now without broad immigration reform would severely damage the economy.

"We have significant sectors of the economy that need large numbers of low-­skill workers, yet we don't have legal channels for these immigrants to come in," says Judy Gans, manager of immigration policy at the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "The question is: What are we doing to the economy by imposing worksite enforcement before the legal channels are there to meet the economy's needs?"

E-Verify used to be called the Basic Pilot/Employment Eligibility Verification program. It was created by Congress in 1997 as a voluntary pilot program to give employers an electronic way to verify employees' Social Security numbers. It's now operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration and is used by almost 70,000 employers nationwide. It's currently voluntary, except in a handful of states like Arizona.

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