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E-Verify 101: Report covers basics and history of worker screening program

Photo by jphilipg/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The program known as E-Verify has made its way lately to the center of the immigration debate, as some lawmakers seek to make the online worker screening tool mandatory for employers nationwide. But the voluntary program once known as "Basic Pilot" has a long and complex history that began years ago.

The Migration Policy Institute has put out an interesting paper on E-Verify basics that covers the ins and outs of the program and its history, which dates back to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and its related loopholes. The law required employers to view workers' documents, easily forged or borrowed, but not verify their authenticity. In time, one solution floated was a voluntary verification program. From the article:

From its voluntary pilot testing and first use in 2004 by very small numbers of employers, E-Verify has expanded significantly. Since 2006, more than 15 US states have implemented some type of E-Verify mandate, either through legislation or executive order, and the Supreme Court recently upheld through Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting the states' right to make participation in E-Verify mandatory for all employers. Additionally, an Executive Order signed by President Bush in 2008 requiring all federal contractors and subcontractors to use E-Verify went into effect in September 2009.

E-Verify has since experienced dramatic growth both in terms of uptake among employers and the number of queries processed, partly as a result of these mandates. As of January 2011, over 243,000 employers had registered to use the system, up from 9,300 in June 2006, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). And overall use of the program increased eight-fold between 2006 and 2010, from 1.7 million to 13.4 million queries, covering about one out of four people hired in the United States in 2010.

Still, with a total of about 7.6 million business establishments in the United States according to 2008 US Census Bureau data, only about 3 percent of all employers have enrolled in the system.

In California, only 2.4 percent of businesses were enrolled as of January; other states' E-Verify use has been compiled in comprehensive list. Meanwhile, in Arizona, which has had a mandatory E-Verify law since 2007 - recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court - 25.7 percent of businesses are using it.

The numbers could change depending on whether mandatory E-Verify legislation, including the Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act of 2011, were to become law. Several House bills have been introduced, though they face uncertain prospects in the Senate. In the meantime, other states have introduced their own E-Verify mandates, among them Georgia, where the state's agriculture industry is in a pinch as undocumented workers have reportedly been leaving the state.

While the article doesn't get into the economic impacts of mandatory E-Verify, it does get into various pros and cons of the system itself. Among the cons is the system's error rate:

...when it comes to the task of identifying unauthorized workers, E-Verify fails about half the time. According to a December 2009 Westat analysis, about 54 percent of unauthorized workers screened by E-Verify between April and June of 2008 were incorrectly confirmed as legal workers. Thus, it was estimated that 3.4 of all E-Verify confirmations during this period were mistakes. A 2011 MPI analysis of FY 2009 USCIS data suggests similar trends in erroneous confirmations.

The article outlines potential improvements to the E-Verify system and alternatives, and presents a case study of how the program has worked so far in Arizona.