E-Verify mandate poses a threat to legal workers

By Connie Cho and Erin Oshiro

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Fane, a native of Tonga, works as a dispatcher for a company in Los Angeles. When she was hired, her employer used E-Verify, an electronic federal database intended to identify only unauthorized immigrants, to verify her work authorization. Though she's been a U.S. citizen for 16 years, the E-Verify system flagged her. She had not notified the Social Security Administration that she had become a U.S. citizen — something that she did not realize that she was supposed to do.

Fane reported the mix-up to her employer, which eventually reinstated her. But she lost back pay for two weeks of work — a devastating loss of income for a working-class single mother of four.

Cases like Fane's, unfortunately, would become all the more common if Congress passes HR2885, a bill sponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, to require all employers to implement E-Verify. Currently, the flawed E-Verify program is voluntary for most employers. This bill recently passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.

The government's own study shows that E-Verify's current error rate is 20 times higher for foreign-born workers than U.S.-born workers and 30 times higher for naturalized citizens, according to Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Making the system mandatory would adversely affect all immigrants, but especially the nation's Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, of whom more than two-thirds are foreign-born.

And those who are authorized to work in this country, including U.S. citizens, could be deemed unauthorized simply due to an old database system that doesn't reflect current work authorization status. Because of errors in E-Verify, between 144,000 and 415,000 U.S. citizens and other legal workers in California alone could lose their jobs if they do not know to or are unable to correct their records, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

Smith's bill creates other problems, as well. For example, it would allow employers to pre-screen workers, something that is not allowed under the current E-Verify system. In the past, due to inadequate training of employers, workers who looked "foreign" have been pre-screened erroneously. Allowing pre-screening thus would provide opportunities for employers to discriminate against those workers lawfully present.

This would especially devastate the many foreign-born workers who are not yet fully proficient in English.

The measure also would hurt small business owners. Small businesses in California, for instance, could have to spend more than $312 million per year to comply with the requirements of E-Verify, according to Manuel Pastor, the director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.

And training employers to use the often-complicated computer-based system would present a challenge for the significant number of immigrant business owners. For example, as of 2007, California was home to more than 500,000 small Asian-owned businesses, many with first-generation business owners.

What seems like a technological answer to solving America's immigration and unauthorized workforce problem is really a threat to legal workers and American businesses. Rather than investing in piecemeal efforts to address our broken immigration system, Congress must focus on a comprehensive solution.

Connie Choi is a staff attorney/citizenship network manager at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, and Erin Oshiro is a senior staff attorney at the Asian American Justice Center.

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