E-Verify bill opens new front in debate over immigration
Congress is considering a measure that would require employers to enroll in an employment-verification program called E-Verify, to help keep illegal immigrants out of the workplace. More than 5,000 employers across Washington state are already enrolled but Gov. Chris Gregoire is opposed to expanding the program, saying its use could deepen an already critical shortage of farmworkers in the state.
Seattle Times staff reporter
How E-Verify works• Using employment forms from newly hired workers, employers enter the name, Social Security number, date of birth and any immigration ID into an Internet-based site operated jointly by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
• If documents are in order, an authorization notice is issued through the system.
• If the employee's records require additional review, a tentative "nonconfirmation" notice is given. Workers can contest this by visiting a Social Security office or by calling an immigration office. The employee must be allowed to continue working without penalty while the discrepancy is resolved.
• If the worker does not contest the nonconfirmation, or if the problem cannot be resolved, the matter becomes final and the worker must be terminated.
Deportations upU.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said Tuesday his agency deported 396,906 individuals during the fiscal year that ended in September, the largest number of removals in the agency's history.
The overall number of deportations from the region that includes Washington, Oregon and Alaska declined 23 percent, to 7,607. Times staff and news services
For a while last spring, the usually uneventful council meetings in the little town of Yacolt were buzzing with unaccustomed excitement.
A councilwoman had introduced a measure to require that local employers use a federal employment-verification program, known as E-Verify, to help ensure any person they hired was allowed legally to work in the United States.
E-Verify is at the center of debate in Congress, where lawmakers could make the now-voluntary program mandatory for employers across the country.
Some states — such as Arizona — already have.
Expanding the program would free up some 7 million jobs nationwide now held by illegal immigrants, the bill's author, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in touting his Legal Workforce Act as a jobs bill.
But Gov. Chris Gregoire, who recently led a delegation of farm-group representatives to Washington, D.C., where, among other things, they lobbied against the E-Verify bill, believes expansion would worsen an already dire shortage of farmworkers in Washington state.
And in the Clark County town of Yacolt, E-Verify also had skeptics.
North of Vancouver, the hamlet has a handful of employers — there's the Yacolt Trading Post and the local cafe — businesses that barely noticed what was going on at town hall when leaders began discussing E-Verify.
"But near the end, people got a bit upset," said Cindy Marbut, town clerk and treasurer. "We have a population of 1,585 people; we're a small community, with little businesses, little growth.
"There's no way we were going to pass that — telling people how they should run their businesses."
In the end, Yacolt's council passed a watered-down version of the measure, requiring only that contractors and subcontractors with the city be enrolled in E-Verify. The town itself also is required to use the program to screen new employees.
Marbut said she has used E-Verify twice — for a part-time worker and a council member.
"It was actually pretty easy, got the results back right away," she said.
It's mandatory in places
Nationally, more than 294,000 employers have enrolled voluntarily in the free program, a partnership between the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
Employers can check online the Social Security numbers and immigrant identification provided by new hires against Social Security and immigration databases to help determine the workers' eligibility.
Enrollment is mandatory for federal contractors and subcontractors.
Across the country, it's a mixed bag. Some states have made the program mandatory for employers; some cities have. California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a law doing the opposite: prohibiting mandatory use of E-Verify in that state.
In Washington state, a little more than 5,000 employers are enrolled.
It's an interesting fraternity — from restaurants and technology firms to colleges, school districts and state departments such as Labor and Industries. There are well-known employers such as Starbucks and the Muckleshoot Tribe and smaller names such as the Seattle bar Tini Bigs. Dozens of local governments also are enrolled — including the cities of Mercer Island and Port Townsend, as well as Pierce and Spokane counties.
Kryss Segle, human-resources director of the city of Mercer Island, said her department enrolled about a year ago when it appeared the program might become mandatory.
"It's pretty easy for us since we hire maybe 10 or fewer people a year," she said.
A job killer?
But Gregoire is no fan.
The farm-group delegation she recently accompanied to D.C. noted that nearly 72 percent of workers needed for seasonal jobs are undocumented and that many have been scared away by the possibility of immigration action being brought against their employers.
In an interview with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the governor said E-Verify alone, without a broader solution to the problem of illegal immigration, is not the answer.
"All we're going to do is penalize employers," Gregoire said. "We're going to lose jobs, and we don't have any way to get those jobs back. Why — in this recession, as hard-hit as we are — would we, the state of Washington, support that?"
Critics have called the program flawed, citing a 2010 report by Westat, a Maryland-based research group, that showed 4 percent of initial responses from E-Verify were inconsistent with the applicant's true legal status.
Applicants are given eight days to fix problems.
Smith's bill won support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as the National Restaurant Association and the National Association of Home Builders — both of which represent industries that employ large numbers of illegal immigrants.
Or a job creator?
The House Judiciary Committee last month voted 21-13 to send it to the full House. And while Republican House leaders have not scheduled a floor vote, pressure is mounting from the measure's supporters for them to do so.
"If President Obama is indeed focused on putting 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans back to work, there is one element that is missing from his jobs plan: a federal E-Verify requirement," Smith, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement last month.
"This is one of the best options on the table to put unemployed Americans back to work."
Craig Keller, who runs a group called Respect Washington, which has tried repeatedly to put mandatory E-Verify before Washington voters, agreed.
"There are companies, even now, voluntarily adopting E-Verify," he said. "It's triggering self-deportation, and those jobs are opening up."
But Hilary Stern, executive director of Casa Latina, which operates a day-labor center in Seattle, sides with the governor, contending that "making illegal immigrants unemployed and unemployable" is shortsighted.
"The idea is that you cut off oxygen to these people and employers will turn around and hire legal workers," Stern said. "But that doesn't work."
Americans, she said, aren't taking those jobs. She pointed to states such as Georgia, which enacted tough immigration laws that have driven out large numbers of illegal immigrants, leaving unharvested crops rotting in the fields. A University of Georgia study this year found the state had a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields.
Information from McClatchy Newspapers is included in this report.
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