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.