SALT LAKE CITY — Opinions vary as to effectiveness of the federal E-Verify system, the federal government's databases to check the employment eligibility of new hires.

But participants in an immigration debate Tuesday night at the Salt Lake City Library agreed that fixing the nation's broken immigration system will require federal reforms far beyond worker verification.

Salt Lake attorney Roger Tsai, who specializes in immigration law, said federal reforms must "deal with the folks who are here and deal with the folks who want to come here in a fair and equitable way."

Moreover, Americans must pay more attention to what is happening south of the U.S. border. "If they have jobs there, there's no reason to come here," Tsai said.

Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who recently announced he will run for Congress in Utah's 4th District, agreed that the nation's immigration problems require federal solutions.

"There is an absolute lack of courageous leaders in Washington, D.C. to solve this issue," Sandstrom said.

"All we can do as a state is put Band-Aids together."

In the absence of federal immigration reform, many undocumented workers are subject to exploitation in terms of wages and work conditions, panelists said.

The low wages paid undocumented workers depresses wages throughout the construction industry, said William Goble, business manager of the construction trades union Painters and Tapers Local 77.

Those who pay lower wages "cheat" workers and "legitimate contractors who try to play by the rules," Goble said.

The lower wages has also resulted in a fewer documented workers or American citizens entering the construction trades. Veterans of the industry are widely discouraging their children from entering the profession, said Dennis Chavez, a construction company owner.

"The challenge is you can have your Microsofts but who is building their building? Who is building it safely?"

In many respects, participants said, employers have become de facto immigration enforcers through the various verification processes they are required to conduct when hiring new employees.

While the law requires them to ensure that the documents they accept at hire are "reasonably genuine" Tsai said it can be difficult to parse legitimate documents from fakes.

For that matter, the United States has issued 40-50 different valid versions of Social Security cards, Tsai said.

Sandstrom said the illegal immigration debate frequently centers on undocumented workers. Most people living in the United States, he said, have some sort of documentation.

"They do have documents. They happen to be falsified or stolen and bought on a street corner," he said.

E-Verify, Sandstrom says, is 90 percent effective, according the Department of Homeland Security. The system compares an employee's I-9 information against DHS and Social Security Administration databases. It is provided free to employers. The state of Utah requires employer of more than 15 people to use the system, but state law has no enforcement mechanism to ensure compliance.

On occasion, E-Verify wrongly denies lawful applicants of the opportunity to work, said Juan Ruiz, president of the local Latin America Chamber of Commerce, noting that the system is far from perfect.

"What happens to those people who are unable to get their jobs back and have lost that opportunity?"