House Panel Looks to Expand Program to Identify Undocumented Immigrant Workers

Farm workers in California - Photo: leadenhall/flickr

Farm workers in California. (Photo: leadenhall/flickr)

This week’s hearings by the House Immigration Subcommittee – focusing on workplace enforcement – reveal the direction immigration policy will take under the new GOP-led House.

The new chairman of the panel, Rep. Elton Gallegly has made clear his desire to make E-Verify mandatory. E-Verify is the Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the legal eligibility of their employees to work in the U.S. Currently, the E-Verify program is voluntary except in certain states, and for employers with particular federal contracts.

“Making [E-Verify] universally mandatory would ease the cumbersome and easily manipulated I-9 process employers now use to screen employees. It would also greatly reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the American workforce,” Gallegly said after being named chairman.

On Thursday Feb. 10 the House Immigration Subcommittee held its second hearing of the 2011 session, called “E-Verify—Preserving Jobs for American Workers.”

The session followed fresh media reports that the Chipotle restaurant chain had been targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for suspected hiring of undocumented workers. Chipotle was asked to turn over I-9 forms at 60 restaurants in the Washington D.C. area, and a spokesman said afterward the chain is considering implementing E-Verify nationwide.

But immigrant advocates and many in the business sector—particularly agriculture—say the E-Verify system is faulty, and is not ready to be rolled out nationwide. In its current form, they say, the program would have a devastating effect on business and unfairly hurt legal workers who erroneously get tangled in the system.

The Immigration Policy Center says making E-Verify mandatory would be costly, push immigrants into the underground economy and hamper the nation’s economic recovery. The Center has also documented cases of legal residents who spent months trying to rectify mistakes in the system that cost them their jobs.

“A recent Bloomberg study states that if E-Verify had been mandatory for employers last year, it would have cost U.S. employers $2.7 billion. And, as the vast majority of U.S. employers are small businesses, almost all of that $2.7 billion price tag would have been shouldered by our country’s small businesses,” said Attorney Marketa Lindt in a conference call for reporters hosted by the IPC.

The Washington Post spoke to Randel Johnson, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who said, “I have a real mixed reaction from my members,” some of whom find it workable and others who do not.

“With some companies, it is the logistical problem of having a computer on your construction site” to run the online queries, Johnson added. “If you are running a small business, there is aversion to a new system that will make things more complicated.”

In addition to the cost, the larger issue is that the American economy depends on undocumented workers. Craig J. Regelbrugge, vice president of the American Nursery & Landscape Association told the Washington Post in the same article that workforce enforcement without other reforms would be devastating:

Simply put, any E-Verify expansion that comes without meaningful immigration reform would be disastrous for the American agricultural economy,” he said. “It will leave the United States importing food and exporting jobs.

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