Cut From Stimulus, E-Verify Likely to Resurface in Immigration Debate

By Staff Report

Feb. 20, 2009

When a bill weighs in at $787 billion, it’s hard to imagine anything being left out. But a provision that would have required companies receiving stimulus funding to sign up for a government-run electronic worker verification system was scuttled during House-Senate negotiations.

The measure could have increased the number of firms, especially in the construction industry, using the system. About 87,000 employers have signed up for the voluntary program, known as E-Verify, which checks new-hire information from I-9 forms against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases.

The author of the bill that established E-Verify was angry that it did not survive in the stimulus package.

“There is no assurance that the jobs created will go to American workers,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-California, said on the House floor. He asserted that E-Verify was “stripped out of the bill without discussion or debate.”

Employer groups were relieved by the outcome. They have long criticized the system for being inaccurate, inefficient and unable to detect identity theft.

Despite its stimulus demise, E-Verify will remain on the congressional radar. The program is due to expire March 6. A separate provision that would have reauthorized it also was struck from the stimulus package.

But Congress will probably find a way to maintain the program until it can be addressed as part of a larger immigration bill, according to Hector Chichoni, a partner at Epstein Becker Green in Miami.

“It was removed [from stimulus] because it is going to come up in the same or similar form later in the year,” Chichoni said.

E-Verify proponents say the system confirms 96 percent of queries instantly and has an error rate of less than 1 percent. Employer advocates argue that the 4.1 percent error rate in the Social Security database could lead to millions of people being incorrectly ruled ineligible for work.

After the failure of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, the Bush administration made E-Verify—and work-site enforcement generally—a central component of its battle against illegal immigration.

The Obama administration is likely to continue to support E-Verify, according to Chichoni.

“It’s the best the government can do,” Chichoni said. “They will never abandon this.”

But the government will now take a different approach to enforcement.

“They’re changing the strategy,” Chichoni said. “They’re going after the employer rather than going after the undocumented.”

It’s hard to predict when Washington will turn its attention to immigration reform. It was highlighted by Senate Democratic leaders as one of the items at the top of their agenda.

But the collapsing economy has been the focus of Capitol Hill so far. In the meantime, it’s not just E-Verify that will be in limbo. Technology companies probably won’t get the increase in employment visas that they covet.

Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel, expects that piecemeal immigration concerns will have to wait until Congress takes on comprehensive reform.

“It will all be dealt with at once,” he told reporters after a speech in Washington in early February. “I don’t see [immigration] being a big priority. They have bigger fish to fry.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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