De Leon: If E-Verify Becomes Mandatory, It Won’t Solve Nation’s ‘Immigration Problem’

Farm workers in Florida

Farm workers in Florida. (Photo: tpmartins/flickr)

The Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on Tuesday introduced the Legal Workforce Act (H.R. 2164), a bill the lawmaker claims “could open up millions of jobs for unemployed Americans and legal immigrants” by making E-Verify mandatory for all employers.

E-Verify, an Internet-based system which confirms a person’s employment eligibility based on immigration status, is administered by the U.S Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. Currently, E-Verify is optional for most businesses, though Arizona and Mississippi require it statewide, and it’s mandatory for many businesses with federal contracts or subcontracts. More than 225,000 U.S. employers, large and small, use the program now, and DHS estimates about 1,000 new businesses sign up each week. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, ruled that Arizona’s Employer Sanctions law requiring the use of E-Verify is legal. This may have motivated Smith to propose his bill.

“Despite record unemployment,” Smith argued, “seven million people work in the U.S. illegally.  These jobs should go to legal workers.” He adds that “E-Verify is a successful program to help ensure that jobs are reserved for citizens and legal workers,” and asserts that “there is no other legislation that can be enacted that will create more jobs for American workers.”

Opponents of the measure immediately voiced their dissent.

Civil liberties advocates such as the ACLU protest that the bill encroaches on the privacy of citizens that have done nothing wrong by collecting their biometric information.  Latino and immigrant rights groups contend that the current E-Verify system is already error-prone as it is. Farmworker advocates and the agricultural industry, particularly concerned about how E-Verify will effect their livelihoods, argue that the bill would do more harm than good.

In a joint statement, Farmworker Justice and the United Farm Workers reason that if the bill passes, “undocumented farmworkers would feel tied to their employers, and would be reluctant to challenge illegal or unfair conduct for fear of losing their job and the ability to work.” Furthermore, they predict that such a law “would deepen problems in the farm labor force by encouraging even more employers to use farm labor contractors to avoid obligations under E-Verify.” The same argument is likely to be used by immigrant advocates in the service industry.

The debate will no doubt continue, as with any other initiative proposed by either political party that purports to solve the “immigration problem.”  A measure that addresses only one aspect of the broken immigration system and is born out of ideology will not be universally welcomed.

The 2012 elections already looms on the horizon. Republicans and Democrats – including the Obama administration – have not shown a willingness to seriously look at the immigration system in its entirety and attempt a holistic approach. Rather, they can be expected to rouse their bases with red meat and dodge immigration reform once again. A few will pander to the growing immigrant population and their native-born children, who are becoming hard to ignore. In the meantime, the system will remain broken.

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