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Business Groups Turn to Capitol Hill to Amend E-Verify Regulations

September 8, 2009
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Starting Tuesday, September 9, new federal contracts of $100,000 or more will come with a requirement that companies sign up for a government-run electronic employment verification system that has generated vociferous criticism from many employers.

Although a Maryland district court recently dismissed a lawsuit by several business groups to stop the regulation, the plaintiffs are seeking an emergency injunction and relief on Capitol Hill.

The new regulation had been delayed several times since it was promulgated in final form by the Bush administration in November.

Under the rule, contractors are compelled to enroll in the government electronic verification mechanism called E-Verify, which checks Form I-9 employee information against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases.

Subcontractors with a contract of $3,000 or more also must use E-Verify. Companies have to join the system within 30 days of being awarded a contract.

So far, 148,000 employers voluntarily use the system to check new hires. But the contractor rule, which could more than double the number of companies participating in E-Verify, also applies to current employees who work on federal projects.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is trying to get language inserted into E-Verify reauthorization legislation that would limit the contractor regulation just to new hires.

The House and Senate have passed separate versions of a homeland security appropriations bill that contain provisions to renew the E-Verify law, which is set to expire on September 30. Conference negotiations are set to begin this month.

Randel Johnson, senior vice president for labor, immigration and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said that it would be difficult for many companies with federal contracts to sort out who is doing federal work and who isn’t.

They might feel obligated to verify all their workers, a move that could incur significant costs and might expose the company to lawsuits from currently authorized workers.

“You can imagine what that would mean to aerospace and computer industry companies that are huge,” Johnson said. “We are pursuing legislative relief on the Hill very aggressively.”

The chamber, the Society for Human Resource Management and other business organizations criticize E-Verify for being inefficient, prone to error because of faulty government databases and unable to detect identity theft.

SHRM, through the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, is advocating legislation that it says would address E-Verify’s problems and offer a biometric identification option for employers.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York and chairman of the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee, has expressed opposition to E-Verify.

The Department of Homeland Security defends E-Verify, which it says has handled more than 7.6 million employment verification queries since October 1. The agency says that 97 percent are confirmed as work-authorized within 24 hours.

But employer groups assert that the DHS and Social Security databases are riddled with errors that arise from failing to update names and immigration status. The shortcomings could result in tens of thousands of people being inaccurately declared ineligible to work.

“There needs to be a strong effort by the government to ensure the integrity of the information in the system,” said Geetha Nadiminti, a lawyer at Ford & Harrison in Atlanta.

While E-Verify continues to chafe the business community, it is a point of convergence between the Obama and Bush administrations. Both have used E-Verify to emphasize work-site enforcement and build support for comprehensive immigration reform.

“This is very significant,” Nadiminiti said. “It’s a very clear reflection of the Obama administration’s commitment to ensure a legal workforce and to enforce our immigration and employment eligibility laws.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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