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US immigration reform: Why 'E-Verify' screenings, while flawed, will pass

E-Verify screenings of new workers, in use in some states, has the strongest public support of all the basic elements of immigration reform. It's included in the bill the Senate began debating Friday.

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Many private sector employers voluntarily participate. All federal agencies have been required to use the program since 2007. Many states have laws mandating E-Verify for at least some employers. States that are implementing E-Verify for nearly all employers include Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina.

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When the databases for Social Security or immigration services (part of Homeland Security) don’t recognize a new employee, the employer gets a “tentative nonconfirmation,” or TNC notice. The employer is then legally obligated to tell the employee, who will have eight working days to contact the government to correct the record if possible.

If the worker fails to contest the TNC, or cannot correct the record, he or she gets a "final nonconfirmation." By law, employers are then expected to fire that worker.

More than 99 percent of the time, the databases provide a quick confirmation that a newly hired person is eligible. But sometimes the people who get a confirmation really shouldn't be eligible to work. 

In February, Emily Tulli of the National Immigration Law Center told a congressional hearing that large numbers of illegal workers slip through E-Verify undetected. She cited 2008 research, finding that “54 percent of unauthorized workers for whom E-Verify checks were run were erroneously confirmed as being work-authorized.”

On the flip side, Ms. Tulli said, many legal workers find themselves flagged as potentially unauthorized.

One survey of 376 immigrant workers in Arizona, she said, found that more than 100 of them had been fired, apparently after the employer got TNC notices and failed to notify the workers about their opportunity to appeal.

“In fiscal year 2012, approximately 100,000 workers [nationwide] likely received erroneous findings from the system and may have lost their jobs as a result,” Tulli said in her prepared testimony. That number of people who lose their jobs in error could rise as high as 770,000 or more if E-Verify is mandated nationwide, she warned.

But Mr. Wolgin of the Center for American Progress says a worst-case outcome – with many people wrongly losing jobs even as hordes of unauthorized workers skate by undetected – is far from inevitable.

“This [Senate] bill actually has a lot of protections written into it,” he says.

For workers who are legal but get dinged with a TNC, it would provide new pathways for appeal if their initial efforts to correct the record aren’t successful, he says.

To better catch illegal workers, the bill now being considered by the Senate cracks down on ID fraud – an important reason why many illegal workers can slip through E-Verify undetected. It seeks to match photos presented by newly hired workers with photos in federal (passport) or state (driver’s license) databases.

The Senate legislation pairs E-Verify with legalization for millions of immigrants who are currently not authorized to work. That's important because it lightens the stress on E-Verify. The program might still face significant hurdles in ramping up to cover all US hiring, but the number of illegal workers to catch would be smaller.

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