By Jude Joffe-Block, Fronteras Desk
Hiring employees who are legally entitled to work in the United States has been a long-standing issue in the big picture of ways to curb illegal immigration.
Now, several states require every employer to run newly hired workers through E-Verify, an online, federal program that cross-checks identity information against federal databases. Arizona’s mandate was the first in the country to include all employers.
As Congress prepares to take on immigration, many observers believe one debate will be over whether to include mandatory E-Verify, or a system like it, in a comprehensive reform bill.
What lessons has Arizona learned from using the program for the past five years?
At the time the E-Verify requirement took effect in Arizona in 2008, Ross Tappan was the manager at a dairy in Mesa with more than 6,000 cows. Tappan was overseeing up to 90 employees, many of them Latino immigrants.
“Everything from milking cows, to driving tractors to feed them, cleaning out the stalls, breeding cows,” Tappan said of his workers. He recently left the dairy to sell feed.
Back then, Tappan didn’t want to risk losing his critical workforce in an immigration raid.
So before starting with E-Verify, he did an internal audit of his current employee’s files. He found many workers’ Social Security Numbers didn’t check out.
“They had to either get it straight or we couldn't employ them,” he said.
He lost 12 people that way. And from that point forward, he turned away new hires who couldn’t pass E-Verify.
Law-abiding managers like Tappan are at least part of the reason that some unauthorized immigrants did leave the state.
But not everyone took the new mandate as seriously. A third of new hires in Arizona weren’t checked through E-Verify according to an analysis by the libertarian think thank, Cato Institute.
E-Verify was queried 982,593 times in Arizona in 2011, while census data shows there were 1.48 million new hires in that period.
One reason for the lack of compliance is Arizona’s mandate doesn’t have teeth. It’s one of a number of lessons learned in the past five years here.
“Arizona was the test case and we ended up debugging the system for everyone else,” said Julie Pace, a Phoenix employment attorney.
For instance, the program has been criticized for providing both false positives, and false negatives.
While 98.3 percent of people currently pass E-Verify immediately, the 1.7 percent of people who are flagged include a small number of legal, eligible workers.
Furthermore, E-Verify isn’t immune to fraud, particularly identity theft, though U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is working on improvements. Currently, some undocumented immigrants do pass by using the identity of a legal worker.
“We had one name that was used 266 times in the country to pass E-Verify and let them work,” Pace said.
Pace says a key lesson from Arizona’s experience with E-Verify is that it cannot be effective on a national scale as long as their are millions of undocumented workers.
“Because then people have to keep lying to work in this country,” Pace said. “So you have to have a visa program for service workers. You have to. Or you will crash the entire economy of this country.”
One proposal to beef up the integrity of the system is to add biometric data, such as fingerprints.
But that would be costly and is a red flag for privacy and civil liberties advocates.
“I just don’t think the government is very good at making or maintaining large databases like it needs to do, if it wants to make this system work,” said Alex Nowrasteh, a policy analyst at Cato Institute. “I also don’t really trust the government to make such a large database of all of our information for any reason, let alone, immigration enforcement.”
And in the end, Nowrasteh says, determined illegal immigrants will find a way around any employment verification system.
“All it does is to make it more difficult for the rest of us, who are law abiding workers, to get lawfully employed,” Nowrasteh said.
One thing E-Verify can do is offer employers some peace of mind when immigration agents come knocking.
Federal audits of employment paperwork aim to crack down on employers for hiring undocumented immigrants. They can be accompanied by hefty fines - and in extreme cases - criminal charges.
These audits have skyrocketed in recent years from 757 in the last two years of the Bush administration, to 5,516 in the past two years under President Barack Obama.
Among the 146 Arizona businesses audited in 2011 was the dairy Tappan managed in Mesa.
Two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up two years ago.
“They gave us a list of everything we had to do, pull all our records, make copies of it,” Tappan said.
Using E-Verify made the audit less painful.
ICE identified 10 more employees who were working illegally, but if the dairy hadn’t used E-Verify for the past few years, Tappan assumes there would have been more.
The agents didn’t fine the dairy, and Tappan believes that could have been in part due to using E-Verify, since it showed the dairy had tried to hire lawfully.
Tappan did have to say goodbye to those workers, which he said was hard on everyone.
But afterward he said he felt relief, knowing for certain his workforce was legitimate.
“You don’t worry about, oh my gosh, getting raided and getting called, ‘Hey we have cows to milk and no one is here.’”
Nationwide, only an estimated 7 percent of companies are currently using E-Verify.
How the program could be implemented nationally, and what changes would be part of that mandate, is likely to be a key part of the upcoming immigration reform debate.
Fronteras Desk is a collaborative of public broadcasting entities in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Medxico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media.