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Leading Senator Intends to Scrap E-Verify Employment Verification System

Democrat Charles Schumer, who is poised to lead the immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill, wants to scrap a government-run electronic employment verification system and replace it with one that incorporates biometric identification.

June 25, 2009
A senator poised to lead the immigration reform debate on Capitol Hill wants to scrap a government-run electronic employment verification system and replace it with one that incorporates biometric identification.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York and chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, faulted the government system, known as E-Verify, for not being able to detect identity fraud.

“E-Verify is both unfair and ineffective,” Schumer told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday, June 25, prior to participating in a White House meeting on immigration with President Barack Obama.

Schumer said that E-Verify, which compares information from I-9 forms against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases, is unfair because it singles out people with Hispanic surnames. It is ineffective because illegal workers can slip through the system by stealing Social Security numbers and making fake IDs.

“You need a biometric,” Schumer said. “You need a picture. You need it to be unforgeable.”

He first indicated his intentions on employment verification in a speech Wednesday, June 24, in Washington in which he laid out seven principles for immigration reform.

“Only by creating a biometric-based federal employment verification system will both employers and employees have the peace of mind that all employment relationships are both lawful and proper,” Schumer said in prepared remarks at a Georgetown University conference sponsored by the Migration Policy Institute. “This system will be our most important asset in dramatically reducing the number of illegal aliens that are able to live and work in the United States.”

Schumer will be the point person in the Senate on immigration. He took over the subcommittee chairmanship this year from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, who has stayed mostly at home as he battles brain cancer.

Advocates called Thursday’s White House meeting the kickoff of comprehensive immigration reform. A previous effort died in a Senate filibuster in the spring of 2007, demonstrating the political volatility of the issue.

Schumer’s opposition to E-Verify was welcomed by the Society for Human Resource Management and other HR organizations that are pushing the New Employee Verification Act, which would establish an electronic verification system with a biometric option.

“We think it boosts legislative alternatives such as NEVA for an effective employment verification system,” said Mike Aitken, SHRM director of government affairs. “You’ve got to do something about the shortcomings of E-Verify in terms of identity.”

SHRM and many other employer groups say that E-Verify is hobbled by a 4 percent error rate in the Social Security database. Extending it to all employers could result in hundreds of thousands of erroneous nonconfirmations.

But E-Verify also has ardent supporters on Capitol Hill.

The House approved a homeland security appropriations bill on Wednesday that includes a two-year reauthorization of E-Verify. The system, currently constituted as a voluntary program used by about 128,000 employers, is due to expire on September 30.

The House also approved redirecting $50 million in the DHS budget from another department to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services for E-Verify enhancements.

That move was championed by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-California and author of the original E-Verify bill. Calvert and many GOP colleagues as well as moderate House Democrats want to strengthen and expand E-Verify, which they see as a linchpin in halting illegal immigration through work-site enforcement.

The two-year extension would be a significant step forward, said Rebecca Rudman, Calvert’s spokeswoman. “It increases the chances that we’ll get reauthorization through Congress,” she said.

Rudman said that E-Verify instantly confirms 96.1 percent of queries and has an error rate of less than 1 percent.

It’s difficult to project the fate of comprehensive immigration reform. The political divisions within and between parties and interest groups in 2007 still exist. In addition, health care and energy reform are likely to consume the summer and a chunk of the fall legislative calendar.

But Schumer said that this time around immigration advocates realize that Americans must first be convinced that illegal immigration must be stopped before broader reforms can be enacted. Secondly, Republicans need to mend fences with Hispanic voters.

“I’m going to try my best to do [comprehensive reform] this year,” Schumer said. “The fundamental building blocks are in place.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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