Employers that use a government-run electronic employment verification system will be recognized in a campaign launched by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday, November 19.
About 170,000 firms are using the system. The “I E-Verify” campaign includes a public service television advertisement that touts companies for their efforts to ensure a legal workforce.
“The public should know which companies are following the law,” Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a Washington symposium.
The agency extended the hand of cooperation to employers at the event. Later in the day, it took a disciplinary posture, announcing that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would investigate 1,000 companies nationwide involved in critical infrastructure operations for suspected immigration violations.
In order to reduce the “demand side” of illegal immigration, DHS is promoting E-Verify. The system, however, has come under steady criticism from employer groups for being inefficient, ineffective and unable to detect identity theft.
Although the ballroom at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel was packed with companies that use E-Verify—Cargill, General Dynamics, Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart—some employer representatives in attendance were concerned that the DHS ads portray E-Verify as mandatory when in fact it is voluntary.
“They need to have a good message, but I think their little tag line, ‘We follow the law,’ is really misleading,” said Cynthia Lange, a partner at Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy in Washington. “It’s not the law; it’s a pilot program. That’s my first reaction. I don’t mean to be critical.”
Employers could have any number of reasons for not registering for E-Verify, according to one symposium participant who declined to be identified. For instance, the transition to E-Verify for a big company is complex and could take 18 to 24 months.
By instituting the campaign, Napolitano wants to apply moral suasion to the millions of U.S. employers that don’t use E-Verify.
E-Verify “will be a centerpiece of our effort to maintain a legal workforce for a long time to come,” Napolitano said. She called the system, which is now mandatory for many federal contractors, a “long-term reality for doing business in our country.”
“As with any emerging trend in business, it’s an advantage to be out front,” Napolitano said.
Some groups, including theSociety for Human Resource Management, caution that E-Verify has to be substantially upgraded before it is rolled out to all 7 million U.S. employers. They say that errors in the Social Security database could wreak havoc in the labor market by incorrectly declaring workers ineligible for employment.
In a presentation at the symposium, DHS asserted that E-Verify confirms 96.9 percent of queries as work authorized within seconds and that only 0.3 percent of the remainder are found to be inaccurately barred from jobs.
By emphasizing work-site enforcement, the Obama administration hopes to create support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for the nearly 12 million undocumented workers currently in the country. In a speech last week, Napolitano said that Congress and the administration would address the issue next year.
The HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, led by SHRM, is promoting legislation that would establish an alternative online verification mechanism based on a new-hire system that most employers use. It also would allow for a biometric identification option.
Members of the initiative give the homeland agency credit for trying to improve E-Verify. DHS said that by summer 2010 it will strengthen the system by providing automatic reminders about expiring documents, enhancing case management, improving data entry and allowing employees to check their own eligibility.
“They’re sincere in the effort to reach out to employers,” said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel.
The agency is trying to use both rewards and punishment to get companies to follow immigration laws.
“Our goal is to create a culture of voluntary compliance at every level of business,” said John Morton, assistant DHS secretary for ICE. “Employers should understand that their I-9s need to be in order.”
—Mark Schoeff Jr.