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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.

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Other states are wary of E-Verify. Illinois even has a law forbidding employers from using it because of concerns about its accuracy, although the state has agreed not to enforce its law until a court case challenging it is resolved. California legislators are considering a similar ban on the use of the program.

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E-Verify advocates say the program has enough safeguards to protect citizens. Workers who are given a "tentative non-confirmation" – meaning there's a problem with their Social Security number – have eight working days to clear up discrepancies in the government's database, they note. And employers who use E-Verify are held harmless it if turns out they unknowingly hired an illegal immigrant.

"If you're an employer, you're no longer required to be a document expert," says Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington. "With E-Verify, you can tap into an automated Internet database that runs against almost 500 million records. It's fast, easy, and free to use. What's not to like?"

Critics have found quite a bit not to like. They note that a study commissioned by DHS itself found that for every thousand names put into the system, 58 come back as tentative nonconfirmation. Of those, about five people successfully contest the finding that they're not legally eligible to work in the US. DHS officials and advocates like Mr. Dane believe that means the other 53 applicants are probably illegal and the system is discouraging them as it should. But critics note that there's no way to know if those 53 were in the US illegally. The study commissioned by DHS also found that a substantial number of employers did not follow the E-Verify rules designed to protect citizens.

"We really don't know what the situation is with that 5.3 percent [who don't contest their tentative nonconfirmations]," says Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.

He did an analysis using the same Social Security database that E-Verify uses. The government acknowledges that the database has an error rate of 4.1. That means that about 17 million people's names may not be exactly correct or there was an error when the information, like date of birth, was entered. Though they are here legally, those residents would come back as "tentative non-confirmations."

"As a matter of simple math, that means that if E-Verify were to go national, on the first day 1 in 25 legal new hires would be bounced out of the system and asked to go down to the Social Security office and straighten out the problem," he says.

That raises Mr. Harper's broader concerns about the program – that it would encourage employers and workers to operate "under the table" and that it could prompt even more identity theft and document fraud. "Conservatives are supposed to want people to work – not on welfare, not working under the table," he says. "Here's a system where we really don't know what's happening with 5.3 percent, but it looks like more than 1 in 100 lawful employees are being sent packing."

But supporters argue that clearing up discrepancies in the Social Security database is a "public service." They say there could be some initial disruptions to the economy, including a substantial loss of tax revenue from illegal workers who are now paying taxes. But they argue there will be long-term benefits to the economy.

"Of course some portion of illegals working on the books will stop doing so and either start working under the table or go home," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. "Either one is going to result in their no longer paying taxes. But enforcing the law is supposed to get those people out of their jobs: They're not here legally."