Broken Border Series: Part V - Lessons Learned From E-verify

Jan 25, 2013

It's gotten a lot more complicated in recent years to hire undocumented workers - and that's especially true in a state like Arizona, which mandates strict hiring practices. Workplace enforcement will be part of the upcoming debate over immigration reform. In Part V of our series Broken Border, Fronteras reporter Jude Joffe-Block explores lessons learned so far.

Several states now 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 that took effect in 2008 was the first in the country to extend to all employers.

Back then, Ross Tappan, was in charge of a dairy in Mesa, just outside of Phoenix. He was overseeing up to 90 employees, many of them Latino immigrants. Tappan says workers did, "everything from milking cows, to driving tractors to feed them, cleaning out the stalls, breeding cows."

Tappan says it was a critical workforce he didn't want to lose in an immigration raid. So before starting with E-verify, he did an internal audit of his employees' 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," Tappan says. That's how he lost 12 employees. And from that point forward, Tappan 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 seriously. A study that compared E-verify queries from Arizona with census data on new workers suggests that in 2011, a third of new hires weren't checked in the system. Why? There is no teeth in the mandate, it's one of a number of lessons learned in the past five years here.

Julie Pace is an employment attorney in Phoenix and says, "Arizona was the test case and we ended up debugging the system for everyone else." For instance, Pace says some legal workers are incorrectly flagged by the system. And some undocumented immigrants can pass - E-verify isn't immune to identity theft. Pace says, "one name was used 266 times in the country to pass E-verify and let them work."

According to Pace, the most important lesson Arizona learned by testing the system is that any workplace enforcement - like E-verify - cannot be effective on a national scale as long as there are millions of undocumented workers. She says those numbers can "crash the entire economy of the country."

One proposal to beef up the integrity of the system is to attach some kind of biometric marker - like fingerprints - to it. But that would be costly and is a red flag for privacy advocates, including Alex Nowrasteh of the libertarian Cato Institute. He says he, "doesn'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.

In the end, Nowrasteh says determined undocumented 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."

One thing E-verify can do is offer employers some peace of mind when immigration agents come knocking. Federal I-9 audits of employment paperwork have skyrocketed in recent years - up from less than 800 in the last two years of the Bush Administration, to well over 5,000 in the past two years under President Obama.

Among those audited? The dairy in Mesa that Ross Tappan managed. Two Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agents showed up two years ago. They pulled all his records to make copies. Tappan says using E-verify made the audit less painful. When ICE identified 10 more employees who were working illegally, the dairy wasn't fined, likely in part because using E-verify showed the dairy had tried to hire lawfully. Afterward, Tappan says he finally felt relief knowing certain his workforce was legitimate.

Nationwide, only about 7 percent of companies are currently using E-verify. How it could be implemented nationally - what changes would be part of that mandate - is likely to be a key part of the upcoming immigration reform debate.