Businesses have a free, simple way to check that their new hires are legal. Although far from perfect, it could reduce the lure of employment that draws illegal immigrants, experts say.
But most employers who depend on illegal workers -- including the vast majority of agriculture businesses in the Central Valley -- won't use it.
And Congress, under pressure from business leaders, refuses to make them -- despite a clear voter mandate to stop illegal immigration.
Called E-Verify, the online government program uses records from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security to instantly check an employee's legal status after being hired. When word gets around that an employer uses the program, illegal immigrants stop applying, experts say.
A law requiring all businesses to use E-Verify would make it much more difficult for illegal immigrants to find work, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration enforcement.
"It's one of the most successful programs that the immigration agencies have undertaken," she said.
The program has run into strong opposition from business groups that say it creates an administrative burden. But experts say the real reason is that E-Verify makes it harder to hire illegal workers.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, an association of agriculture businesses in the Western U.S., acknowledged as much.
"It may work for Costco, but Costco doesn't have the problem I have" -- a shortage of legal residents willing to work in agriculture, he said.
The debate over E-Verify has put local conservative groups in a tricky position: They oppose illegal immigration, but they support businesses that rely on illegal immigrants.
Michael Der Manouel Jr. is chairman of the Lincoln Club of Fresno County, which includes many local business and agriculture leaders. He says companies should use E-verify -- otherwise, he said, they are signaling that they think it's acceptable to employ illegal immigrants.
"You can't say it's against the law and ignore E-Verify," Der Manouel said. "So be consistent, take a position."
E-Verify isn't popular in the San Joaquin Valley. Out of thousands of businesses in Fresno, for example, only 179 use the program, federal figures show -- although those numbers don't account for businesses that contract with personnel companies using the program.
Gary Honeycutt, owner of BJ's Kountry Kitchen restaurants in Fresno and a manager for agriculture properties, said he's never considered using E-Verify. Instead, he said, he depends on his own ability to detect fake documents.
"I can truthfully say that, to my knowledge, I've never employed an illegal person," he said. "If we suspect that the documents are phony, we do not hire that person."
Jana Hall, president of Bruce K. Hall Construction in Fresno, said her company signed up for E-Verify last year -- but only because a contract with a federal agency for construction work required it.
With high unemployment and plenty of workers looking for jobs, Hall said she doesn't mind using E-Verify. But once the economy improves and workers become more scarce, "I might have a different feeling about it," she said.
Farmers, meanwhile, say they'd rather have a legal workforce but need to hire illegal immigrants. Without them, crops would rot and their competitors -- who all hire illegal workers -- would have an unfair advantage. In the end, they say, it's the government's job to make sure their workforce is legal.
"We don't want to be in the role of playing police officer -- that's not something any of our businesses should have to do," said Ryan Jacobsen, director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
Some in the construction industry share that view. Dave Jones, manager of the Associated General Contractors of California for the San Joaquin district, said contractors in his association are focused on getting the job done, not determining workers' legal status.
"If the workers know what they're doing, that's more important," he said.
There are exceptions. Michele Peterson, general manager of the Fresno housecleaning service Mini Mops, uses a personnel company that screens employees with E-Verify.
Peterson said it can be hard to find employees who are legal residents and are willing to work for minimum wage. But she wants to make sure she has a legal workforce.
"We don't hire just anybody," Peterson said.
Nationally, about 3.3% of the nation's 7 million employers use E-Verify -- and some 1,100 employers enroll every week. Among agriculture companies, 2.2% use E-Verify, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which oversees the program. Cunha said employers who hire workers en masse -- such as farmers -- don't have the time or resources to use the program, which he described as "very, very bureaucratic."
"How does a farm-labor contractor sit there trying to type in names when he's trying to do safety and heat-illness training and trying to get the worker's name right?" Cunha said. "They don't have bookkeepers, they don't have H.R. people."
In response to Cunha's concerns, two E-Verify officials visited Fresno County in early June. Cunha gave them a tour of farms and nurseries where they saw how employees are hired. The officials described the trip as "very educational," but concluded that there was no reason agriculture employers couldn't use E-Verify.
"We've heard from different sectors of the economy that it's not very usable for them," said Mac McMillan, chief of the verification division of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "My response is that E-Verify is a very accurate system."
E-Verify officials said they are using the information they received from the trip to make improvements, such as making the program more accessible on cell phones and integrating it into payroll software. Alternatively, they said, farmers who don't want to use E-Verify can hire personnel companies that are more familiar with the program.
Federal law requires many government contractors to use E-Verify. In Arizona, Mississippi and Utah, all employers must enroll in the program. Rhode Island requires state agencies and their contractors to use E-Verify, but not private employers. South Carolina requires all employers either to use E-Verify or check a new hires drivers license. And in eight other states, at least some public agencies must use it. California has no E-Verify requirement, although several cities have mandated its use for businesses. None are in the central San Joaquin Valley.
But efforts to expand the mandate to all employers have failed. Congressional lawmakers haven't even agreed to make E-Verify a permanent program.
Last year, for instance, the House approved a big economic stimulus package with a provision that extended and strengthened E-Verify through 2013. The U.S. Senate's version of the bill lacked this provision, and congressional negotiators omitted it in the final bill. In March 2009, by a 50-47 vote, the Senate subsequently killed a separate effort to extend the program through 2014.
"Our Democratic leadership is blocking an effort to make E-Verify permanent or even extend it for just five years," Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions noted during last year's debate. "What does that signal, I ask?"
In fact, resistance has been bipartisan.
A bill in July 2009 by Rep. Heath Shuler, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina, would phase in the mandatory use of E-Verify by all employers to check the status of existing employees and new hires. It gained 118 co-sponsors in the House, but hasn't come up for a vote during the 111th Congress, which expires in December.
A pending Senate-passed homeland security bill would make the program permanent, but the House version would keep it temporary and simply extend its life until Sept. 30, 2011.
E-Verify faces an array of enemies that reflects the sometimes bewildering divisions that complicate immigration policy.
Some question the program's accuracy, citing past audits. Civil libertarians oppose the bill because they see it as a step toward national identification databases and point out that on occasion, it has erroneously identified legal immigrants as illegal.
Conservatives like the bill as a way to crack down on illegal workers, but businesses fear it will add costs and hiring complications. The politically muscular U.S. Chamber of Commerce has fought against any expansion of the program. It filed lawsuits to try to overturn the Arizona E-Verify law, as well as the law that requires many federal contractors to use it.
"E-Verify is the wrong solution at the wrong time," Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's national litigation center, declared last year after the Obama administration agreed to postpone expansion of the program.
Janice Kephart, national security policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, retorted in an interview that "the chamber's objection is they have a constituency that relies on illegal workers."
E-Verify isn't perfect. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it is better at detecting made-up Social Security numbers than at recognizing those stolen from legal residents.
A report released late last year by an independent research firm estimated that 54% of illegal immigrants who were screened by E-Verify were misidentified as legal workers.
The report said illegal immigrants were slipping through the system because E-Verify does a poor job of detecting workers who use someone else's name, Social Security number and date of birth.
McMillan said E-Verify was not originally designed to detect identity theft, but his staff is working to fix that. Possible solutions include using photos or fingerprints to confirm that a Social Security number belongs to the person who claims it.
Employers who don't want to stop hiring illegal immigrants may find ways to continue doing so even if they are required to use E-Verify. For example, they may hire employees as independent contractors, Vaughan said.
Nonetheless, requiring employers to use E-Verify would likely decrease the illegal immigrant population, experts say. In Arizona, for example, the 2007 law that required all businesses to use it appears to have contributed to a small exodus. From 2008 to 2009, the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the state declined by 18%; nationally, the drop was an estimated 7%.
But Mark Reed, a Tucson immigration consultant and former top immigration enforcement official, believes the government won't make E-Verify mandatory or foolproof because of pressure from businesses and interest groups.
"The government is not prepared to shut down illegal immigration yet because they are not willing to deal with the consequences," he said. "And until they are, they won't allow system to work."
Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Rhode Island and South Carolina have laws that require all employers to use E-Verify. Rhode Island requires state agencies and their contractors to use E-Verify, but not private employers. South Carolina requires all employers either to use E-Verify or check a new hires drivers license.
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