Though she had carefully checked the papers employees provided when she had hired them, Ms. Johnson recounts, some IDs turned out to be fakes. She lost 28 employees – more than half her workforce – in one day. The loss, she says, cost her business hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Today, she is thrilled to be using the federal E-Verify program, a Web-based system that combines databases of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Social Security Administration so that employers can electronically verify the employment eligibility of newly hired employees. She is among some 20,200 Arizona employers now turning to the program in compliance with a new state mandate: Use E-Verify to weed out undocumented workers or face losing your business license if caught "knowingly" hiring them.
Judging from the anecdotal experience of several employers here, the program is working as intended. E-Verify works pretty smoothly, they say, and they like having the US government verify employees' eligibility rather than trying to determine for themselves whether documents provided are legitimate. They also note that fewer undocumented workers are applying for jobs here, as more Arizona employers start using E-Verify.
Known formerly as the Basic Pilot Program, E-Verify was first developed in 1997 in the wake of a 1996 immigration reform law and was set up as a voluntary aid to companies. But in addition to Arizona, four states – Georgia, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Missouri – now mandate the use of E-Verify, according to Sheri Steisel, an immigration policy expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Washington. Legislation is pending in 13 additional states that would mandate public or private employers to verify the status of new hires using E-Verify.
"In the absence of the federal government coming to consensus on immigration reform and enforcement, states are left to try to do the best they can," Ms. Steisel says. "States are looking to other states and trying to tailor [legislation] to their own experience."
Since last July, when Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) signed the employer sanctions bill, the number of Arizona employers participating in E-Verify leapt from some 300 to 20,200 as of Feb. 23. Arizona employers make up about one-third of the firms who use E-Verify nationwide. Overall, participants in E-Verify rose from 14,000 a year ago to nearly 54,000 employers today. USCIS officials say that, on average, 1,000 more employers are signing up to use E-Verify each week.
Likely to affect the economy
Arizona won't begin prosecuting violators until March 1, so there's little hard evidence available to evaluate the effort so far. Civil libertarians and immigrant rights advocates have said the program could lead to widespread discrimination and is not as yet foolproof. Illinois, in fact, has prohibited its employers from using E-Verify until the system is improved.
Some 450,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants live in Arizona, and most work in construction, agriculture, manufacturing, and leisure and hospitality industries, says Judith Gans, an immigration policy expert at the University of Arizona's Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, in Tucson. If the program is indeed prompting undocumented workers in Arizona to move on to other states in search of jobs or to return to their native countries – as Ms. Gans says the anecdotal evidence suggests – the state economy is likely to be affected.
"It will take time to disentangle what happens in those industries because of the absence of workers or how much of it is part of the general economic downturn we're experiencing," says Gans.
Worker status within seconds
Marcy Curtis, whose husband owns Rieth Auto Stores in Mesa, Ariz., signed up for E-Verify in October. She didn't have to use it, however, until last week, when Rieth hired its first new worker this year.
She sat down at her computer, rolled up her sleeves, and said a bit nervously, "Here goes." She entered her user name and password, as if signing onto her online bank account. Then the system prompted her to enter the new employee's name, gender, birth date, and Social Security number.
Within two seconds, "Employment Authorized" flashed on the screen.
"Wow," she says, "that's much easier than I thought it would be." Enrolling in the system had been much more cumbersome, she explains, and she had worried that this process would take time out of her workday that she doesn't have. Enrollment required her to read through about 150 pages of information, and then spend a couple of hours answering pretest questions and an online questionnaire.
"People forget that we have been in the midst of immigration reform debate for the past couple of years," says USCIS spokeswoman Marie Sebrechts. "Arizona in that sense was not difficult at all for us to absorb because we were expecting numbers to be much higher because of the pending [federal] legislation."
Johnson has voluntarily used E-Verify for the past two years. She says she was so worried after the initial surprise audit, then a letter a few years later from the Social Security Administration that questioned the documents eight of her employees had provided, that she was relieved to let the government be the judge of workers' documents.
Johnson says the biggest benefit to her is that ineligible employees don't apply in the numbers they once did.
"Probably 70 to 80 percent of employees were declined when I first started using it," Johnson says. "Word gets out in the Latino community that you're going to verify legality. Now it's like 10 percent are declined."
In her experience, she says, E-Verify has worked effectively and quickly, but she has encountered two mistakes. Both times prospective employees' requests came back as "tentative nonconfirmations" either because their birth dates didn't match their names or because their Social Security numbers didn't match their names. Sometimes, she says, it's simply a matter of retesting: Hispanics often have more than two names, and the key is to find out which one the government recognizes. Other times, those who have become naturalized US citizens just haven't reported that status to the Social Security Administration, which ties that information to the numbers.
Johnson says that in both cases the employees insisted they were legal, so she called USCIS and within minutes was able to verify their legal status.
According to Sebrechts of the USCIS, 93 percent of employers' queries are instantly verified as work-authorized, and 7 percent come back as tentative nonconfirmations. The employer notifies the prospective employee of that status, and the employee can contest, as in the case of Johnson's employees, or may just walk away if he or she is indeed not authorized to work in the US.