House Approves Five-Year Extension of E-Verify

By Staff Report

Aug. 1, 2008

In a year when political gridlock has halted most immigration legislation, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday, July 31, that would extend for five years a controversial government-run electronic employee verification system.

Although the measure passed 407-2 under special House rules that required at least a two-thirds majority, the final outcome doesn’t signal widespread agreement on the issue.

Many Democrats and some Republicans want to overhaul or junk E-Verify. Most Republicans and some conservative Democrats praise it for helping reduce the “jobs magnet” that fosters illegal immigration—and want to make it permanent and mandatory for all employers.

Democratic leaders and Republicans agreed that there is not enough time left in this year’s congressional session for the wider verification debate.

In the meantime, the current system, which was set to expire in November, will remain in place for five years. That’s a decrease from the original reauthorization, which called for 10 years. Congress can make changes to the program at any point within that time frame.

It’s not clear when the Senate will address the issue. A group of 12 Republican senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, on July 29 asking him to send a straightforward E-Verify reauthorization bill to the floor.

Democrats want to address employment verification as part of comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for illegal workers. Republicans want to strengthen border security and interior enforcement first.

As part of an ongoing work-site crackdown, the Department of Homeland Security has been attempting to mandate the use of E-Verify through regulations.

The agency’s activity has been spurred by the death of comprehensive immigration reform last year in the Senate. Since then, political conflict over immigration has stymied action.

But employment verification had to move this year because of the imminent expiration of E-Verify, a mechanism that checks work eligibility against Social Security and homeland security databases. About 78,000 employers voluntarily use the system, formerly known as Basic Pilot. 

The reauthorization bill requires that the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, conduct two E-Verify studies. One would assess the causes of incorrect nonconfirmations of legal workers. The other would examine its effect on small businesses.

In addition, the legislation directs the homeland agency to make regular payments to the Social Security Administration to fund the costs of conducting employee checks.

Many members of Congress have expressed concerns about the efficacy of E-Verify. Their misgivings echo those of the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, an organization led by the Society for Human Resource Management.

The HR group criticizes E-Verify for being inefficient, prone to error and susceptible to identity theft. It cites a Social Security database error rate of 4.1 percent that could wrongfully declare millions of people ineligible for work. E-Verify backers argue that it has demonstrated an error rate of less than 1 percent.

During the House floor debate on Wednesday, July 30, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California and chairwoman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, voiced skepticism about E-Verify but said that shutting it down before Congress sorts out verification policy would be wrong.

She noted that 11 bills have been introduced addressing the issue.

“There is much work still to be done,” Lofgren said. “None of us wants the current system to go away while we work to improve and get an even better system.”

The author of the E-Verify extension bill, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, has testified against the system, detailing troubles that employers have had in Arizona, one of several states where the legislature has mandated that some businesses use the system.

She vowed that E-Verify will not last the full five years. “The current employment verification system needs to be replaced or reformed,” she said. “We can do better.”

Giffords is co-sponsor of a bill written by Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, that would clean up Social Security records and then replace E-Verify with a mandatory electronic verification system based upon existing child-support enforcement networks in each state. It also includes provisions for a biometric system to protect worker identity.

The HR coalition’s strong backing of that bill has drawn sharp criticism from the homeland agency and some congressional Republicans, who say SHRM wants to kill employment verification. SHRM strongly denies the accusation and asserts that it wants to establish a system that is more effective than E-Verify.

In their defense of E-Verify, Republicans made oblique references to the kerfuffle.

“I want to set the record straight,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. “Participating employers are happy with the Basic Pilot program. It is hard to believe that those who attack E-Verify are serious about … reducing illegal immigration.”

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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