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Working In These Times

Monday, Sep 14, 2009, 2:05 pm

Troubled ‘E-Verify’ Program Highlights Dysfunctional Immigration System

BY Michelle Chen

Even before they became the paper tiger in the healthcare reform circus, undocumented immigrants were Washington's favorite boogeyman in the politics surrounding the federal stimulus.

To quell paranoia about Americans' hard-earned tax dollars getting misspent, the Obama administration is requiring federal contractors to use the E-verify system for screening workers' immigration status. The new mandate was drawn up by the Bush administration, but never implemented until now.

The controversial program, which lets employers cross-check workers through Social Security Administration and Homeland Security databases, will be imposed on about 169,000 contractors and subcontractors under the plan. But E-verify has attracted criticism over the years as ineffective, discriminatory, and threatening to workers' rights.

So much for combating waste, fraud and abuse.

Though many employers are using E-verify currently on a voluntary basis, efforts to mandate the program nationwide have run into political and legal challenges on the left and right. Unions, civil rights groups, and even some business interests, fear the system would exacerbate workplace discrimination and lead to bureaucratic dysfunction under the guise of law enforcement.

ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese argues that E-Verify casts an absurdly wide net that could snag workers of all backgrounds:

E-Verify has been plagued with problems, including a failure to identify legally authorized workers due to its reliance on the error-ridden databases of the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Discrepancies between workers' social security numbers and SSA records can result from many innocent factors, including simple human error. The data error rates in both SSA and DHS files concerning work-eligible U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and visa holders are well-documented.

According to a 2008 Government Accountability Office study, although most E-Verify queries do not result in errors, many authorized workers could be wrongly ensnared due to flawed government data. Moreover, the system does not adequately guard against the use of stolen identification documents.

Despite some recent technological improvements, an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found that “foreign-born workers are still more likely to experience database errors due to misspellings, confusion over name order, etc.,” and that such errors could be worsened when employers “rely on racial or ethnic cues” when vetting workers.

In its current form, E-verify could deeply impact civil rights in an increasingly volatile low-wage workforce. A centralized national identification database, say watchdog groups, could open channels for misusing sensitive information. From a labor standpoint, tying employment decisions to a flawed technological regime makes all workers more vulnerable.

When Sen. Jeff Sessions pushed legislation earlier this year to force federal contractors into E-Verify, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger warned that the expansion would not only alienate workers, but also hurt the economy and impede efforts to make immigration policy more equitable.

Verifying workers based on a backlogged system full of discrepancies will lead to unfair firings of Americans workers and untold misery for many of our nation's hardest, most underpaid workers...

In most cases [when workers are misidentified], employers aren't likely to wait out the red tape to re-verify a worker—employers will fire first and only the most well connected workers will be able to ask questions later. This will further jeopardize economic recovery by expanding job loss, undermining employer confidence and thrusting millions of hardworking, legal families into a web of uncertainty.

The National Immigration Law Center cites an even larger error in E-Verify: the flimsy logic that drives enforcement-only approaches to immigration. Far from bringing law and order to workplaces, advocates say, harsh crackdowns on the hiring of undocumented workers may end up just driving workers further underground, to work off the books in even worse conditions.

Meanwhile, state budgets would be doubly hit by the loss of tax revenues as well as the heavy administrative costs of running the system.

Though the goal is to restrict the use of undocumented labor, E-Verify could actually make it easier for employers to exploit workers; the GAO reported that "E-Verify is vulnerable to acts of employer fraud and misuse, such as employers limiting employees' pay during the E-Verify process."

There's a still more-ironic upshot, though: "information suggesting employers’ fraud or misuse can be useful to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in targeting worksite enforcement resources."

So immigration authorities might use reports of employer misconduct in E-Verify to root out unscrupulous contractors. It makes sense, in theory, to use technology to track those who break the law. But a more logical approach is to simply stop giving shady employers tools that let them abuse their power in the first place.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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