By Caitlin Fuller
IE Contributor
New America Media

Texas Congressman Lamar Smith
Texas Congressman Lamar Smith
Last month, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX) introduced the Legal Workforce Act, which would require employers to verify their employees’ legal immigration status using the online program E-Verify. While proponents of the program believe the resulting loss of jobs will compel undocumented workers to return to their home countries, not all policy experts agree.

“The law would just drive eight million unauthorized workers even deeper into the shadows,” said Angela Kelly, an analyst at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Back in 2006 and 2007, proposed immigration reform packages included E-Verify mandates, but were counterbalanced by legalization programs for the 11 million or so undocumented people currently living in the United States. Today, only 4 percent of U.S. employers use E-Verify. If participation in the program becomes mandatory through the Legal Workforce Act, however, it would likely take the wind out of comprehensive immigration reform bills such as the one introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) last month, according to Kelly and her colleagues at CAP.

During a recent teleconference hosted by New America Media, Kelly and Philip Wogin, both immigration policy analysts at CAP, told ethnic media reporters that the E-Verify legislation would also have other unintended consequences.

“This bill would break the backs of small businesses,” said Kelly, who shared CAP estimates showing that the mandate would cost small businesses a total of $2.6 billion a year.

In theory, E-Verify allows employers to ensure that all of their employees are legally authorized to work in the U.S. To do so, the employer enters personal information, including the birth date and social security number or alien identification number of the employee, into the E-Verify system. Then, the Social Security Administration and U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) cross check that data against existing records. If the information matches up, E-Verify issues proof of work authorization.

If there is a mismatch of information, E-Verify issues a tentative non-confirmation to the employer. When this occurs, the employee must contact the government in order to sort out the issue. If the employee fails to resolve the data discrepancies, E-Verify then issues a final non-confirmation notice. Under Smith’s proposed bill, the employer would be legally obliged to fire the worker after receiving the second notice.

Part of the problem, said Kelly and Wolgin, is that the current E-Verify technology is not accurate. CAP estimates that the system will accurately identify only about half of all employees who are not legally authorized to work in the country. Conversely, many employees who are legally authorized to work could be erroneously flagged by E-Verify as unauthorized. CAP estimates those employees would then have to spend an average of $450 in lost wages and transportation costs just to straighten out the misunderstanding with the government. Although legally, employers have to wait for the final non-confirmation notice before firing their employees, CAP has found that employers who already use E-Verify often fire their workers after receiving the first, tentative non-confirmation. CAP estimates that 770,000 people who are legally authorized to work in the United States could lose their job if E-Verify becomes law.

Kelly noted that the federal government would also stand to lose revenue, if unauthorized workers choose to move from the formal to an informal economy as a result of the E-Verify mandate. In addition to the lost income and tax revenue that will cause, said Kelly, there is also the startup cost to the federal government.

“This is a program that would result in a massive expansion of government,” said Kelly. CAP estimates that the Department of Homeland Security would spend about $800 million just to establish the program. It would cost the Social Security administration $281 million.

The bill was expected to be debated in the Judiciary Committee, of which Smith is the chair, last month. If it passes the Republican-controlled committee as expected, it could be introduced on the House floor as early as September.

Although Congressional Republicans appear to support the bill, it is not without some controversy within the party. Pennsylvania Representative Lou Barletta, the former mayor of Hazleton, who famously cracked down on the employers of undocumented immigrants in his town, objected to the federal government taking on what he sees at a state issue. To date, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Indiana have all passed immigration laws that include E-Verify mandates.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that he will not support a federal E-Verify mandate separately from comprehensive immigration reform.

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