Verification Nation

Immigration data mess


In August the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) renewed its push for "E-Verify," a 10-year-old federal program also known as "Basic Pilot." The American Civil Liberties Union has a different name for it: a "permission slip to work." The system, which employers can use to check the immigration status of potential new hires against federal databases, is currently experimental and voluntary, but no one expects it to stay voluntary forever.

One state isn't waiting. By passing a proposal that state Rep. Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), its sponsor, humbly dubbed "the greatest bill in the nation," the Arizona legislature made use of E-Verify mandatory for all Arizona businesses starting January 1, 2008. Illinois took the opposite tack in August, prohibiting employers from using E-Verify until DHS could meet certain criteria for accuracy.

Because the databases it draws on are notoriously inaccurate, civil rights groups have long warned that E-Verify would prove disastrous for foreign-born American citizens and legal residents. The Social Security Administration estimates that 17.8 million of its records contain discrepancies that could lead to delays and false negatives. Employers are technically supposed to wait until such discrepancies are addressed before firing someone, but DHS has no mechanism for making employers pause until the government rechecks its data. A 2006 study by the Social Security Administration's inspector general found that 42 percent of employees surveyed said their employers were using E-Verify to screen employees before they were hired, suggesting that people burdened with inaccurate records may simply be passed over for jobs.

There's another problem with Arizona's law: It probably violates the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The federal government has jurisdiction over immigration, and the federal government has deemed the program voluntary. But DHS doesn't seem particularly concerned about Arizona. Instead, the department is suing Illinois, the state that barred use of E-Verify until its accuracy is improved.