HR Organizations Promote Electronic Citizenship Verification Legislation

By Staff Report

Feb. 28, 2008

Prospects for broad immigration reform are dim, but legislation focusing on border security and work-site enforcement could be headed to the House floor.

The bill, written by Rep. Health Shuler, D-North Carolina, would require all employers to sign up for the government-run electronic verification system called E-Verify, which has drawn criticism from the HR community.

As momentum for the measure increases, a group of HR organizations led by the Society for Human Resource Management is backing a separate bill that would create a new electronic employment verification system based on an existing state mechanism.

Under the New Employee Verification Act, companies would enter employee identification data into a state’s new-hire reporting program, which was established in 1996 to enforce child support payments. About 90 percent of U.S. employers use the system.

The identity of the prospective employee would be checked against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases. The procedure would eliminate the paper-based I-9 process.

Supporters say another provision of the bill would prevent identity theft. Employers would be given the option of signing up for a secure electronic verification system that uses a network of government-approved private contractors to conduct background checks of workers and collect biometric identifiers, such as fingerprints.

“Employers want, need and deserve a reliable employment verification system,” said the bill’s author, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas and ranking member of the Social Security subcommittee of the House Ways & Means Committee. “The [current] system is broken and needs to be fixed.”

Johnson’s bill, which was introduced at a Capitol Hill press conference on Thursday, February 28, would replace E-Verify. A decade old and set to expire in November, E-Verify checks I-9 information against government databases.

About 52,000 employers have voluntarily signed up for E-Verify. DHS says companies are embracing E-Verify and that it is discouraging illegal workers from applying for jobs.

Critics, including SHRM, assert that the system is inefficient, inaccurate, vulnerable to identity theft and incapable of hosting every U.S. employer. It has a 4 percent error rate, which could potentially affect 6 million workers. 

Using the system did not prevent food processor Swift & Co. from being the target of a DHS raid in December 2006 that resulted in the arrests of more than 1,000 illegal workers.

E-Verify is at the heart Shuler’s measure, which would require all companies with more than 250 employees to sign up within the first year after the bill’s enactment.

Shuler has garnered 139 co-sponsors, 91 of whom are Republicans. The popularity of an enforcement-only bill is growing following the demise last year of broad Senate legislation that included a path to legalization for undocumented workers.

Shuler is urging House Democratic leaders to bring his bill to the floor for a vote. “We’re hopeful that it will be sooner rather than later,” said Andrew Whalen, Shuler’s communications director.

Johnson hopes to persuade Shuler to drop E-Verify and replace it with his verification system. “We’re working with [Shuler] now to make it part of his bill,” Johnson said.

A co-sponsor of Shuler’s bill said that Johnson’s verification idea is better than E-Verify. “This is a smarter way to do verification,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas and a member of the House Ways & Means Committee.

The fact that it utilizes a network of private companies to maintain identity databases prevents a national ID system run by the government, according to Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin and a Ways & Means member.

“It allows people to reclaim their identity,” Ryan said. “It’s decentralized; it’s technologically innovative.”

The approach was shaped by the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, a group of HR organizations led by SHRM that worked on the bill for the last year.

SHRM president and CEO Susan Meisinger said leadership on verification from Washington is crucial. Employers are upset with the pastiche of work-site enforcement laws enacted by states after the Senate bill failed.

“It’s time for Congress to pre-empt this trend because it’s very harmful,” Meisinger said.

Given deep divisions on the issue, Congress may not be able to do much on immigration before it adjourns later this year. Meisinger is trying to position the HR community to influence whatever policy emerges.

“We’re going through a process of figuring out what is possible,” she said.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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