Employment Verification Debate Pushed Off to Next Year

By Staff Report

Jul. 10, 2008

A key House leader on immigration policy intends to push into next year a contentious debate regarding employment verification.

With the law establishing a government-run electronic system set to expire in November, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California and chairwoman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, says there is too little time left on the legislative calendar to decide whether to expand, overhaul or end the mechanism known as E-Verify.

Lofgren and Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, are seeking to move quickly through the House a bill that would extend E-Verify for 10 years as a voluntary program. 

Deep divisions over E-Verify were apparent at a subcommittee hearing Lofgren chaired in June. She and Conyers expressed misgivings about the system, which checks the employment eligibility of workers against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security databases. So far, 69,000 companies have signed up.

In a July 9 interview with Workforce Management, Lofgren indicated she continues to have concerns about E-Verify but that it would be counterproductive to let it expire.

“We’ve got six weeks left in this session, and we’re just not going to get that done,” she said of reauthorizing the E-Verify law.

By proposing a 10-year extension of the current system, Lofgren and Conyers are trying to forestall a bill that would make E-Verify permanent and mandatory for all employers, according to Capitol Hill observers. That bill has wide bipartisan support but is opposed by Democratic leadership leery of enforcement-only measures.

Lofgren wants to maintain E-Verify without modification while fundamental changes are considered in the next Congress.

“We won’t take the 10 years to replace it,” she said. “My guess is that we’ll finalize the reform effort next year.”

Lofgren anticipates that Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, will be elected and will spur Congress to take up comprehensive immigration reform in 2009.

The failure of such reform last year in the Senate has motivated the Bush administration, many Republicans and conservative Democrats to emphasize work-site enforcement.

But employer groups criticize E-Verify, calling it inefficient, prone to error and unable to detect identity theft. They say mistakes in the Social Security database could lead to millions of Americans mistakenly being declared ineligible to work.

The Society for Human Resource Management is leading a coalition of HR groups advocating a bill that would clean up Social Security records and then replace E-Verify with an electronic verification system based upon an existing child support enforcement network.

Mike Aitken, SHRM director of governmental affairs, said he is not surprised that congressional leaders have decided to maintain E-Verify for the time being. Reform bills introduced this year were likely to be markers for action next year.

But Aitken is disappointed that such a long E-Verify extension is in the works, especially when nearly a dozen states have implemented E-Verify mandates.

“They’re not addressing the major underlying problems by giving it a blanket 10-year extension,” Aitken says. “In the meantime, employers are stuck with a system that doesn’t work.”

As the chances for a rifle-shot immigration bill on verification fade, the prospects for stand-alone bills on expanding immigration for highly skilled workers also are dimming. Lofgren’s talks with Republicans haven’t produced results.

“We have to reach some rough consensus in this Congress to move forward,” she said. “We have not yet achieved that. It’s likely that the bulk of reform … will happen next year under President Obama.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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