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Work-Site Enforcement Official Wants to Work With Employers

June 17, 2009
Related Topics: Immigration, Ethics, Latest News
While cracking down on companies that flout immigration laws, the Obama administration wants to extend simultaneously a hand of friendship to those playing by the rules, according to the newly appointed official in charge of work-site enforcement.

John Morton, assistant secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, reiterated in a speech Tuesday, June 16, in Arlington, Virginia, the administration’s policy of pursuing criminal prosecutions against employers who knowingly hire illegal workers.

But Morton, who has been on the job for four weeks, also said that he wants to work with companies that are fastidious about compliance.

“I want employers to view ICE as a true partner to find ways to stay within the law,” he said in a speech at an American Council on International Personnel conference. “As we move forward, I hope we have a much better relationship.”

A source of tension between employers and the Department of Homeland Security is an electronic employment verification system called E-Verify. About 128,000 employers have voluntarily signed up to use the mechanism, which checks new-hire information against DHS and Social Security databases.

But many employer groups, including the American Council on International Personnel, have criticized E-Verify, saying it is inaccurate, inefficient and unable to detect identity theft. The HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce has endorsed legislation that would institute an alternative electronic verification system.

Morton defended E-Verify, saying that it instantly confirms 97 percent of queries. But he acknowledged that the 3 percent rejection rate, in addition to the detection of unauthorized workers, could signal problems with the system.

“There are a lot of people who are abundantly aware of the criticisms,” Morton said. “They are trying to address them. There is a commitment to getting E-Verify right. We think E-Verify, while recognizing it has some issues, is a good working model.”

The system was supposed to become mandatory for federal contractors under a regulation promulgated during the George W. Bush administration. That rule has been delayed for a third time and now will not go into effect until September 8.

Congressional authorization for E-Verify was extended to September 30 in an appropriation bill approved this spring. A House hearing on a bill that would have continued the program for five more years was postponed earlier this month. 

The program is mired in a political stalemate over broader immigration reform. After a comprehensive bill died in the Senate two years ago, the Bush administration began to ramp up enforcement efforts.

The Obama administration is changing the focus of crackdowns to employers rather than illegal workers, Morton said. He emphasized that ICE would be more aggressive in auditing I-9 immigration forms and imposing civil fines.

“We’re going to continue to do it on a pretty grand scale,” Morton said of work-site enforcement.

Although the international personnel organization that sponsored his speech agrees that employers that violate immigration rules should be punished, it also wants to reward those that stay within the law.

In its principles for immigration reform, the group proposes a “trusted employer registration program” that would give companies with strong compliance records “timely, predictable and efficient access to visas for foreign professionals.”

Companies that submit hundreds of visa applications without a hitch shouldn’t have to get bogged down in approval minutiae each time, said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel.

“There needs to be a way to recognize the employers that are trying to comply,” she said.

Oracle is one company that would like to see a streamlining of immigration bureaucracy.

“It is frustrating as a large employer that there are unscrupulous employers out there ruining it for all of us,” said Denise Rahmani, Oracle’s immigration manager for international human resources.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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