Get in Line!

Will Americans have to prove their right to work via an error-plagued database?

When comprehensive immigration reform crashed in 2007, federal and state legislators searched the remains for salvageable pieces. Some picked up the border wall, others legalization of undocumented workers. In Arizona, lawmakers seized on E-Verify.

Formerly known as Basic Pilot, E-Verify is a federal program that employers can use to check the employment status of new hires against federal databases run by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. For most employers, it's just an option, but in January the state of Arizona began forcing everyone within state lines to run new hires by the feds. The state is ahead of the game; in June President Bush signed an executive order requiring that all federal contractors sign up, and various congressmen are pushing to make E-Verify mandatory for the nation's 6 million employers.

Francisco Romero thinks everyone ought to consider slowing down a bit. Romero is a legal Arizona resident who says he has been fired-twice-based on E-Verify-related blunders. "I have been a citizen for 12 years!" exclaims the construction worker, who spent months shuttling between the Social Security Administration and human resource offices trying to obtain permission to work. He was able to get back on the job site only after a community advocate took up his case and hacked through the verification labyrinth.

The federal data, as Romero could tell you, have some problems. The Social Security Administration estimates that 17.8 million (or 4.1 percent) of its records contain discrepancies. About 5.3 percent of queries to E-Verify come back as "tentative nonconfirmations"; workers must then either schlep to the Social Security Office to prove their status or go underground. Many of the citizens forced to request federal permission to work will be women who took their husbands' names and thus have outdated Social Security records; others will simply be victims of bad Social Security data, bad Homeland Security data, or their employers' fat fingers. While native-born workers have had their share of problems, foreign-born citizens like Romero are far more likely to be incorrectly flagged.

Because the databases are dodgy, employers are not supposed to fire workers until they've given them eight days to contest E-Verify's "tentative nonconfirmations." But a 2006 report from the Office of the Inspector General and the Social Security Administration found that almost half of employers using the program were "prescreening" potential employees before hiring, meaning they might never be given the chance to challenge erroneous disqualifications.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, which now cheerleads for the program on its own website and in public service announcements splattered across city buses, employment verification is a perfectly pleasant experience for most people. That might well be true. But those most likely to be victims of its errors are the least equipped to contest the findings or challenge their employers. Romero speaks little English. He does not have a lawyer. Arizona's Social Security Administration offices are open only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays, when most construction workers are, well, working.

On the department's blog, Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Stewart Baker says the idea that employers will fire people without giving them time to correct data problems is a "myth," because, after all, E-Verify "prohibits" employers from prescreening or firing employees right away. The arrogance of that reasoning, and the faith it displays in frictionless compliance with government diktat, does not bode well for the next American who has to fight for his right to work.

Kerry Howley (khowley@reason.com) is a senior editor of reason. Astrid Arca provided translation services for this article.

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