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Hearing Deals Blow to Expansion of Employee Verification System

May 6, 2008
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An effort to expand a federal electronic employment verification system was set back at a House hearing on Tuesday, May 6, as lawmakers voiced concerns that the mechanism would overburden the Social Security Administration.

In the first of a series of immigration hearings this spring, the House Ways & Means subcommittee on Social Security explored proposals to crack down on illegal hiring through electronic worker verification.

One idea is to extend the current government electronic system, called E-Verify, to each of the country’s 7.4 million employers. Today, about 61,000 companies voluntarily use E-Verify, which checks information from I-9 forms against databases at the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration.

Rep. Michael McNulty, D-New York and chairman of the subcommittee, cautioned that the Social Security Administration must not take on added immigration responsibilities while the agency is trying to reduce a huge backlog of disability claims. Constituent queries regarding the payments can take more than 500 days to answer.

“It would be very difficult to get a majority to vote for a nationalization of the E-Verify system at this point in time,” McNulty said in an interview after the hearing. “This whole issue needs a lot more careful thought.”

Although immigration reform is stuck in a political quagmire on Capitol Hill, Congress must address verification this year because the law establishing E-Verify expires in November.

McNulty did not comment on an alternative to E-Verify called the New Employee Verification Act, which was written by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas and ranking member of the subcommittee.

“On any of these proposals, we need to move very, very slowly,” McNulty said.

Johnson’s measure would eliminate the I-9 process and mandate that companies submit new-hire information electronically to the Social Security Administration through a child-support enforcement system that about 90 percent of U.S. employers use.

Proponents of the Johnson bill say E-Verify is inefficient, prone to error and incapable of detecting identity fraud. The HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, which is led by the Society for Human Resource Management, criticizes E-Verify for relying on the Social Security database, which has a 4.1 percent error rate and could mistakenly declare millions of people ineligible for employment.

The Johnson measure would address such problems through an appropriation that would clean up the Social Security database before the verification system goes into effect, according to Mike Aitken, SHRM director of government affairs. The bill also provides a safe harbor for employers who use the system, reduces the number of identification documents for new hires from 25 to four and allows people to put additional protections on their Social Security numbers.

Under the bill, employers could sign up for a secure electronic verification system based on biometric information collected by a network of government-approved private contractors.

An Arizona Democratic co-sponsor of the Johnson bill said that companies in her state have had bad experiences with E-Verify since the state Legislature mandated its use earlier this year.

“They are finding it complicated, unreliable and burdensome,” said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, at the hearing. “If Congress does nothing or simply extends E-Verify without much-needed reform, it would be disastrous.”

SHRM president and CEO Sue Meisinger gave a similar warning. “It will slow down the free flow of labor across the economy,” she testified.

But E-Verify also draws staunch support. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff calls it an important tool to combat illegal immigration.

The author of the original E-Verify bill, Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of California, testified that 92 percent of employees put into the system are immediately approved and only 1 percent will contest a nonconfirmation.

“E-Verify is doing the job it was intended: denying employment to people in the United States not authorized to work,” Calvert said. “Let’s build upon what works and give the American people what they want: mandatory employment verification.”

All employers would have to sign up for the system and eventually run all of their employees through it under a bill sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-North Carolina, that has 151 bipartisan co-sponsors. Republicans and some conservative Democrats are trying to send the bill directly to the House floor for a vote.

Democratic leadership, torn between members of the party who support an enforcement-only approach and those who promote a path to residency for the country’s 12 million illegal workers, set up this spring’s immigration hearings as a way to let members vent about immigration.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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