The Return of E-Verify

State governments embrace a dangerous employment verification database.


When the Florida legislature failed to pass a bill last month requiring businesses to electronically verify the immigration status of job applicants and employees, one immigration opponent said that lawmakers were endorsing "economic slavery." 

"We used to own them, now we just rent them," George Fuller told Kenric Ward of the conservative Sunshine News, claiming he'd heard the line from a Florida grower.

Ward ran with the metaphor, writing that "while businesses 'rent' undocumented workers for 'slave' wages, Floridians foot the bill for educating, medicating and incarcerating illegal aliens."

If lawmakers in Tallahassee had succeeded in mandating that businesses use E-Verify, a federal database that confirms employment eligibility, Florida growers would likely be facing a very different problem. In Georgia, where lawmakers passed an immigration bill that requires employers to use just such a system, undocumented workers have stopped working. As a result, Georgia growers "have been forced to leave millions of dollars' worth of blueberries, onions, melons, and other crops unharvested and rotting in the fields" according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

All told, Georgia now has lost nearly 11,000 agricultural jobs that pay between $8 and $11 per hour. Those jobs once belonged to undocumented workers—or "slaves," as Fuller and Kenric would call them. Now they belong to no one.  

Despite Georgia's looming agricultural catastrophe, neighboring states are pushing ahead with their own legislation mandating the use of E-Verify. The South Carolina legislature has sent an Arizona-style immigration bill to Gov. Nikki Haley for approval, and Louisiana lawmakers have sent one bill specifically dealing with government contractors to Gov. Bobby Jindal. Earlier this month, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill that requires all businesses in his state, public and private, to use E-Verify effective April 1, 2012. Failure to comply will result in loss of state licensing and certification, and payroll tax penalties. 

Three years ago, E-Verify appeared to be on its last legs. By 2008, the system had existed as a voluntary program for over a decade, but not a single state had mandated it. Former Reason Senior Editor Kerry Howley reported that "the Social Security Administration estimates 17.8 million of its records contain discrepancies that could lead to delays and false negatives," and that the rosy failure rate cited by E-Verify advocates—a measly 4 percent—still meant that the system would make 6 million documented workers nationwide ineligible for employment.

But around that same time, Arizona decided to make the system mandatory, which prompted Howley to visit the state and speak to workers:

In Phoenix, I was hearing stories of legal Latino workers who were fired as soon as e-verify registered an initial problem. One study has found that a third of employers who use e-verify illegally "pre-screen" employees, meaning that they simply won't hire anyone who isn't immediately approved. Not everyone walking away is undocumented. They're just workers with suspicious last names who happen not to be high-powered immigration lawyers working on the Hill.

But even if the E-Verify system was "99.5 percent" error-free, as Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) claimed in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, there's still the problem of who would do all those dirty deeds for dirt cheap. As Georgia has learned, people who can do so legally don't want to pick fruit for $11 an hour.

The threat of unfilled low-wage jobs led the Chamber of Commerce to file suit against Arizona's E-Verify program. The Chamber dubbed the Legal Arizona Workers Act a "business death penalty," yet the Supreme Court ruled in Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting that Arizona's law was permissible.

Business groups in Florida succeeded in blocking E-Verify legislation, citing the impact on the economy. In Washington state, the same concerns have Republican Rep. Doc Hastings on the fence about supporting a national E-Verify mandate without "special consideration for the agricultural industry."

But even though agribusiness would be especially hurt by a nationwide mandatory E-Verify program, the biggest losers would be hard-working undocumented workers.

As Robert Gittelson, co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, wrote in The Hill this week, "Let us not forget for even a minute the horrific human toll on the undocumented families…Where is the compassion for these people? Most of them have been here living, working, and contributing to society for over a decade. This mandatory bill, without an accompanying legalization program, would decimate these good families."

It has already decimated Georgia's melon crop.

Mike Riggs is an associate editor at Reason magazine.