SHRM-Backed Bill Launches Employment Verification Debate

By Staff Report

Apr. 23, 2009

With momentum building for Congress to address comprehensive immigration reform later this year, two members of the House have introduced a bill to put employment verification at the center of the debate.

Written by Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, and Sam Johnson, R-Texas, the measure would establish a mandatory electronic verification system that replaces an existing government-run system that has been roundly criticized by employer groups.

Giffords and Johnson hope their bill, the New Employee Verification Act, will either be the foundation for work-site enforcement in a broader immigration bill or move through Congress on its own.

The bill was introduced Wednesday, April 22, and announced by Giffords and Johnson on Thursday, April 23. It was originally offered in the previous Congress but had to be reintroduced because it did not become law.

The legislation mandates that all employers sign up for the Electronic Employment Verification System, which is based on the new-hire system used in each state to enforce child support payments. About 90 percent of employers use the new-hire system already.

Information for recently hired employees would be checked against Social Security and Department of Homeland Security databases to determine work eligibility. The system would eliminate the I-9 immigration form. 

Alternatively, employers could register for the Secure Electronic Employment Verification System, a network of government-certified private sector companies that would authenticate a workers’ identity through a biometric identifier like a thumbprint.

The bill would establish civil and criminal penalties for employers that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Giffords and Johnson have been working with the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce on the legislation. The organization is led by the Society for Human Resource Management and also includes the HR Policy Association and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The HR groups have led a charge against E-Verify, the government-run electronic verification system that is currently used on a voluntary basis by 118,917 employers.

“E-Verify’s significant error rate and reliance on paper-based identity documents often deny legal workers employment and can lead to fraud and identity theft,” the HR Initiative wrote in an April 23 letter to members of Congress. “Employers, in turn, are left vulnerable to sanctions through no fault of their own.”

E-Verify detractors say that the 4.1 percent error rate in the Social Security database could lead to millions of people being incorrectly ruled ineligible for work.

E-Verify proponents, which include many Republicans and conservative Democrats, say that the system confirms 96 percent of queries instantly and has an error rate of less than 1 percent.

Like E-Verify, the Electronic Employee Verification System would rely on the Social Security database. But the Giffords-Johnson bill requires that the Social Security information be cleaned up before the new system is launched.

In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Giffords called the proposal a “simple, effective, balanced alternative to E-Verify. It is a realistic piece of legislation.”

She also touted a provision that would establish federal pre-emption of state laws on employment verification. Her home state of Arizona was the first of several to mandate that employers use E-Verify—an experiment that is not succeeding, according to Giffords.

“Immigration is in the federal purview,” she said. “We should be dealing with it at the congressional level, not piecemeal state by state.”

It’s not yet clear when Congress will take up immigration reform. A comprehensive bill sparked political combustion in 2007 and died in the Senate. In the last couple weeks, the Obama administration has indicated it wants to address comprehensive immigration this year.

So far, individual dimensions of reform—such as verification and employment visas—have not been able to move on their own. But E-Verify is scheduled to expire on September 30, which might give work-site enforcement separate momentum.

Johnson says the electronic verification bill doesn’t have to be held up until comprehensive reform is complete.

“This year, we stand a great chance of passing it out of the House and Senate,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t have to wait. It can be combined later.”

As the immigration debate gets under way, HR organizations are trying to influence the outcome, especially on verification.

“SHRM feels strongly that employers should be part of the solution to illegal immigration,” said Mike Aitken, SHRM director of government affairs.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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