Cities use E-Verify while state considers banning it

Its foes say it could cripple agriculture, hurt legal workers

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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More than two years ago, Clark County became the first in the state to mandate that its contractors use the federal E-Verify program, in an attempt to ensure taxpayer dollars employed legal workers on public works projects. Since then, three counties and 11 cities, including five in this county, have followed Clark County’s lead.

This small group could soon lose its authority to require E-Verify use.

House Bill 2568, sponsored by Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, D-Seattle, seeks to stop cities and counties from requiring E-Verify, which is not mandated by the state.

Local leaders say E-Verify accomplishes two goals -- ensuring a legal workforce on taxpayer-funded projects and compliance with federal law -- while providing a free and easy-to-use service. Supporters of Kenney’s bill say the program stands to cost the state more than $2 billion if mandated, potentially cripple the agriculture industry and hurt legal immigrants.

E-Verify, as it is implemented now, does not address problems associated with illegal immigrants working for private companies or jobs that pay cash and require minimal verification. Most employers have a choice whether to use E-Verify, and most choose not to, according to state and federal statistics.

The state of Washington had 183,261 E-Verify queries in the 2011 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That accounted for roughly 6 percent of the state’s 3.2 million workers. E-Verify is only used for new employees.

Around 2.2 percent of Washington’s employers use E-Verify, estimated Vandra Huber, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

“With such a small percentage using it, the likelihood undocumented workers are working in a (job) market is exceedingly high,” Huber said.

H.B. 2568

Kenney’s sympathy for legal migrant workers runs deep. She once was one. Her parents moved from Mexico to her birth state, Montana, before settling in Washington.

“This is really a human rights issue,” Kenney said of immigration reform. “This country and this state were built by immigrants. We’re dealing with an immigration problem in these United States that needs to be corrected.”

Economic concerns are also at the root of the E-Verify debate. Opponents argue it could cripple industries dependent on migrant workers. Supporters contend it would save billions in losses associated with illegal workers.

A joint legislative task force that convened in 2009 estimated the state’s so-called “underground economy” cost the state $111 million in lost revenue from the construction industry. That sum represented just 5 percent of the state’s lost revenue due to illegal workers.

Clark County does not have an immigration problem, city officials across the county agree. Even so, they view E-Verify as a useful tool.

“We have a responsibility to make sure tax dollars are spent legally and to promote legal U.S. workers,” Woodland councilman Benjamin Fredricks said.

Cities and counties should leave immigration reform to the state and federal government, argued Mike Gempler, director of the Washington Growers League.

“They are throwing it all out of balance by taking on the immigration law they can affect, out of frustration and desperation, and passing the laws,” Gempler said.

E-Verify holdouts

Not all Clark County cities view E-Verify mandates as essential.

Battle Ground’s council has never voted on E-Verify, former Mayor Mike Ciraulo said, because the city does not have problems with illegal immigrants and contractors it works with are often held to federal standards -- if they receive money from a federal grant they have to use the program.

Ridgefield also does not require E-Verify use for contractors. The city council passed a law that requires contractors to comply with federal, state and local laws regarding hiring illegal immigrants. Adding E-Verify would be a redundant move, city officials said.

The lack of an E-Verify mandate for contractors in those cities does not mean the program is not used voluntarily on public works projects.

Take, for instance, Battle Ground’s $4.8 million Southwest Scotton Way road construction project.

Vancouver-based Nutter Corporation, which placed a winning bid for the project, voluntarily uses E-Verify. Since January 2010, only one of the company’s 100 E-Verify queries resulted in a non-match between the prospective employee’s documents and federal records, said Brenda Wallace, Nutter’s human resources manager.

It is hard to predict how many workers on the Southwest Scotton Way project would be checked via E-Verify, Wallace explained, because it requires only new employees be screened, The odds of the company hiring new employees right now are “pretty slim” because it has experienced workers available, she said, adding that could change this summer.

Discussion continues

If nothing else, Kenney’s bill is sparking discussion in Olympia and around the state, said State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver.

He believes E-Verify provides a “useful litmus test” for immigration reform discussions, and is a supporter of cities’ rights to employ the program.

National immigration advocates and opponents are also keeping an eye on Washington.

It does not matter whether the state or cities require E-Verify use, just so long as someone does, said Bryan Griffith, a spokesman for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The local debate continues too.

“Is it city government’s role to enforce federal immigration laws? I’m not sure it is,” Ciraulo said.

Fredricks, meanwhile, has made up his mind. So too has Olympia, he feared.

“I just don’t think they’re interested in solving the problem,” Fredricks said. “I think a lot of people don’t want to upset the apple cart at the end of the day.”