TOPICS > Politics

How Well Will Electronic Verification System Prevent Undocumented Employment?

June 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Among the more than 100 amendments to the proposed immigration legislation that lawmakers must review are proposals to bolster the electronic employment verification system known as E-Verify. Ray Suarez gets debate on that issue from Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies and Chris Calabrese of the ACLU.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, we turn to the immigration legislation up for debate on the Senate floor.

Ray Suarez has our story.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican Marco Rubio of Florida helped craft the immigration bill.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: Obviously, I think it’s an excellent starting point. And I think 95-96 percent of the bill is in perfect shape and ready to go, but there are elements that need to be improved.

RAY SUAREZ: On Sunday, the senator called again for tougher border security requirements to win over conservative skeptics in his own party.

MARCO RUBIO: I think the debate now is about what that border security provision looks like. And if we do that, this bill will have strong bipartisan support.

RAY SUAREZ: New Jersey Democratic Robert Menendez said his party could support additional reforms, if they’re offered in good faith.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: We’re open to constructive elements of how border security can be further achieved, but not if at the end of the day you are just simply using that as an excuse not to permit a pathway to legalization.

RAY SUAREZ: Like Rubio and Menendez, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is one of the “Gang of Eight,” who wrote the bill. He warned Republicans will pay a heavy price if the bill failed.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: If we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party, and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid has set a July 4 deadline to finish the legislation. That gives lawmakers two weeks to sort through more than a hundred amendments, among them, proposals to bolster the electronic employment verification system known as “E-Verify.” The issue could draw added attention following today’s raids on 7-Eleven stores in New York and Virginia.

Nine owners and managers are charged in a scheme to employ undocumented immigrants from Pakistan and pay them under stolen security numbers. E-Verify is also the latest topic in our ongoing series “Inside Immigration Reform.”

It’s currently voluntary in most states, but that could all change under the new legislation.

We get two points of view now, from Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and author of the book “The New Case Against Immigration Both Legal and Illegal,” and Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Well, it seems to me that from my last couple of employers, I was already proving that I have a Social Security number and showed a document. What is the current version of E-Verify doing? And don’t employees already have to do that, Mark?

MARK KRIKORIAN, Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies: It’s true. You do have to demonstrate first your identity and also your authorization to work.

But it’s based on paper. And so the employer just has to take pretty much at face value whatever you show him. As long as it isn’t Mickey Mouse’s picture on it, he has to accept it. What E-Verify would do is the employer in doing all of his normal paperwork anyway would simply have to check with Social Security and Homeland Security databases whether the number, Social Security number, name, and date of birth are real and whether they match.

So, the point is just to make sure that the stuff that is already being provided is genuine and that the person isn’t lying to his employer.

RAY SUAREZ: Christopher, a version of E-Verify was already rolled out a couple of years ago. Was the federal government up to the task of matching the documents presented by workers with its own database?

CHRISTOPHER CALABRESE, American Civil Liberties Union: I would say no.

Certainly, the federal government has gotten better at this task, but the trick here is that, first of all, you have to be correct in the E-Verify system before you can work. So, if there is an error in the database, that means you cannot work. And when you look at entire population, a large one like the U.S., 154 million workers, even a small error means hundreds of thousands or even a million workers might not be able to work.

So, even a very effective system is going to potentially ensnare a lot of workers.

RAY SUAREZ: So, do you think the new E-Verify, the new generation E-Verify proposed in the Senate legislation has a shot at working?

CHRISTOPHER CALABRESE: You know, I think that you’re still going to have a lot of workers who are going to get caught up in the system that aren’t going to be able to work because of errors in the database.  

And that’s going to be a real problem for them. I mean, this thing about this bill that is maybe — or about this program that’s different than many other things in the bill is this affects everybody. So, whether you have anything to do with immigration or not, you’re going to be under this new mandate, and that mandate may mean that you, through no fault of your own, suddenly need to sort of prove your work eligibility to the government. And that may prove tricky.

RAY SUAREZ: Mark, a step in the right direction?

MARK KRIKORIAN: It’s clearly a step in the right direction.

The idea that hundreds of thousands of people are somehow going to be denied employment because of mistakes in the system is just not true. First of all, you have to be hired first. You’re already working for the employer. Only then do they check. They don’t screen people ahead of time.

Number two, something like one-third of all new hires last year were already screened through the system. It’s voluntary, but it is pretty widely used. We have used it for a number of years. We have never had any problem with it. But some people do get what’s called tentative non-confirmation.

Basically, it’s an initial response that says, something seems to be wrong. Double-check everything and see what the problem is. Most of the time, you know what that turns out to be? It’s women who took their husband’s name when they got married, but didn’t tell Social Security.

And, frankly, I think I would want to know about that when I was 25, not when I was 65. So, in a sense, it’s almost a public service making sure that the information in your Social Security account is correct early on, rather than trying to fix it later.

RAY SUAREZ: Many of the supporters have tried to shift the burden to employers to check whether someone is legally authorized to be in the country and work, say, we can fix this quickly. Social Security cards have never had pictures on them. They have never any kind of physical data on them.

Make it a hard card, a non-counterfeitable card, something with biometric data on it, and make the immigrant carry it. What do you think?

CHRISTOPHER CALABRESE: Well, there’s a couple of problems with that. The first one is, it couldn’t just be the immigrant who carried it, because if you didn’t have a card, that could mean either you were a citizen or you weren’t work-authorized. It would have to be a card for everyone.

And that would be a tremendously expensive proposition, I think tens of billions of dollars. Imagine everybody in the United States run through the DMV, through some sort of federal identification system, because that would basically be what it would be. It would be issuing a new identity credential.

And so, that’s a very expensive proposition. And, honestly, I’m not sure it solves the problem. Remember, the people who don’t want to comply with the immigration system now aren’t complying. Right? You could have a very high acceptance rate, a very high compliance rate, but if it wasn’t the people you were trying to get at, the folks who want to hire undocumented workers and don’t really care what their credentials look like, I’m not sure any of these proposals actually get at those people.

And that’s a huge problem. We could have a very expensive, very invasive system that actually doesn’t solve the problem you want to solve.

MARK KRIKORIAN: The interesting thing that people don’t get is that most illegal immigrants work on the books now. Our estimates are something like 60 percent of illegal immigrants who have jobs working on the books with regular employers, and they have lied to the employers about who they are. Social Security actually estimates even more, maybe 75 percent.

So, this isn’t just an issue of people huddled in front of the Home Depot working for cash. Most of the problem can in fact be addressed by a better — by an E-Verify system that is applied universally. It’s not a magic bullet. It’s not going to magically fix everything all at once, but it is one of the most important elements, because if people have a very hard time finding work, then it becomes much less appealing to come here or stay here as illegal alien.

RAY SUAREZ: So, in the short time we have left, let me get a quick shot at the waterfront from both of you on how we can do better what E-Verify sets out to do.

Christopher?

CHRISTOPHER CALABRESE: Well, I think one of the things we can do is enforce existing wage and hour laws. Put some of this money we’re spending towards E-Verify towards finding the bad employers, actually sending in testers to see if they’re not complying with the law, and bringing down the existing penalties that we have on those employers. It’s much less invasive than a giant system targeted at everybody.

I think it’s something that keeps ordinary folks who really don’t even realize they’re being affected by this discussion from having to grapple with a giant federal bureaucracy in order to work.

MARK KRIKORIAN: If you don’t like E-Verify, you need — the only real solution is to let illegal aliens work again. In other words, you can’t have a ban on illegal immigrants working, but not have some way for legitimate employers to actually know whether they’re hiring people who are authorized to work or not, because this isn’t an issue of crooked employers.

You’re always going to have some of that. That’s what we have police and other things for. The issue here is legitimate, law-abiding employers who want to do the right thing, but now have real difficulty in telling whether somebody is legal or illegal. And the way the law is now, if you look too closely, you can actually be sued by the Justice Department for discrimination.

So, E-Verify is important for employers, as well as the country as a whole.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the debate is under way on Capitol Hill.

Gentlemen, thank you both for helping us explain to the public what’s at stake.

CHRISTOPHER CALABRESE: Thank you.

MARK KRIKORIAN: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, online, “Five Things You Should Know About E-Verify.” That’s on the Rundown.