Clark County employers weigh pros, cons of E-Verify

They wonder if program will protect them, or leave them hard pressed to fill worker ranks

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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After a day picking cherries on his 180-acre Vancouver farm, Bill Zimmerman’s 20 or so workers leave with dirt-coated fingernails, sweat-stained clothes and aches and pains from being on their feet all day.

There are many people willing to do whatever it takes to land this $14-per-hour job, including falsifying documents. Zimmerman knows this, and it has led him to consider a controversial solution -- the E-Verify program.

In increasing numbers, Clark County employers in the public and private sector are embracing E-Verify to eliminate doubts about their workforces’ eligibility to work in the United States. But in the context of this country’s heated immigration debate, the program has more than its share of detractors who question whether it unfairly targets people and industries, such as agriculture, that rely on migrant workers.

E-Verify aids employers by using information reported on new employees’ Form I-9 to determine whether they are eligible to work in this country. The Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration operate the program, which does not verify pre-existing workers’ employment eligibility.

Nineteen U.S. states require E-Verify checks in some form -- whether that includes checks on state employees, contractors and/or some combination of public and private employees.

The state of Washington does not require E-Verify use on any level, but the Clark County Board of Commissioners and the county’s seven cities have passed ordinances mandating use of the program for city employees and/or contractors on public works projects. A bill in the State House is seeking to stop cities and counties from mandating the program’s use.

To proponents, E-Verify is a godsend. It’s free, easy to use for anyone with an Internet connection and protects American employers and employees, they say. The Center for Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank based in Washington, D.C., supports the program.

“One of the major draws of illegal immigration is employment,” said Bryan Griffith, the center’s spokesman. “(E-Verify) effectively cuts off that draw.”

Skepticism also abounds. The program’s error rate is troubling, opponents say. So is the potential for E-Verify to damage industries that rely on workers who falsify documents, if the program is not coupled with major immigration reform. E-Verify stops illegal immigrants from working, but at what cost, opponents ask.

E-Verify’s genesis

E-Verify’s roots can be traced back 26 years to the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which required employers to examine each new employee’s documentation and also brought about Form I-9, an employment verification form United States employers must complete and retain for all employees in this country.

In 1997, employers in select states became able to compare employee’s records against federal records, courtesy of the Basic Pilot Program.

The Basic Pilot Program became E-Verify in 2007 -- the same year America’s illegal immigration total reached 12 million residents for the first time, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The newly christened program included improvements to reduce information errors prevalent in Basic Pilot Program’s early days.

Presently, 1,000 to 1,500 employers in America sign up to use E-Verify each week, according to Bill Wright, a spokesman with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Employers made 5.4 million queries from October 2011 to Jan. 21, Wright noted.

Some E-Verify opponents have raised concerns about the government using the program to stockpile information about employees.

E-Verify supporters stress the program does not create a database nor does it compromise workers’ privacy because it relies on information already provided to employers, such as a driver’s license, United States passport, green card, or an Employment Authorization Card.

“This system is designed to protect the privacy of workers,” Wright said. He added, “If somebody’s doing something illegally using a false identity or false documents, you betcha this system discriminates against them. For those doing it the right way the system is set up not to discriminate.”

Opponents argue it does the opposite.

Error rate

E-Verify confirms 98 percent of applicants within the first 24 hours. Federal officials say 1.43 percent of applicants are ultimately rejected, but just how many of those rejections result from a systemic mistake is hard to know.

National studies have revealed E-Verify’s error rate at 1 percent. Workers targeted in error must contact the Social Security Administration to fix the mistake.

A Department of Homeland Security report on E-Verify found “legal workers are a significant number of times more likely to be discriminated against because there is an error in the system,” said Pramila Jayapal, executive of OneAmerica, the state’s largest immigrant advocacy group.

The error rate not only hurts employees, who are flagged as ineligible, but also hurts employers, who must find workers to complete projects in a timely manner, said Andrew Langer, president of Institute for Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-regulation group.

“It is unfair for everybody involved,” Langer said.

For the reasons Langer listed, Washington state contractors, who employ 200,000 people each year, are skittish about E-Verify.

“One percent comes out to be a pretty big number,” said Rick Slunaker, director of government affairs for the Associated General Contractors of Washington.

The federal government hears industries’ concerns, Wright assured, noting a new photo component could reduce errors.

‘Economic disaster’

In other cases, E-Verify might work too well.

The Washington Growers League fears E-Verify would eliminate 70 percent of the state’s agriculture workforce, if implemented without significant immigration reform.

E-Verify would stamp out industry workers using false paperwork, said Mike Gempler, director of the Washington Growers League. It would also put undue pressure on farmers who hire hundreds of workers a few days before the season starts, he noted.

“The bottom line is, if we do E-Verify by itself, we will not have enough of a workforce and we will have an economic disaster,” Gempler said.

State farmers have known they employed illegal workers for “a long time,” Gempler added, but have struggled to do anything about it because of worker shortages.

The agriculture industry is faced with an ethical dilemma, said Vandra Huber, a professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

“They can continue (hiring illegal workers) because they have a need or they can start using E-Verify and take proactive steps,” Huber said. The alternative is “closing (their) eyes to who is legal or illegal” until authorities crack down, she noted.

On his Glenwood-area farm, Zimmerman is cognizant of such a crackdown. He estimated 5 to 10 percent of the prospective employees he screened were illegal. The tedious path to work visas and employment authorization makes him doubtful the number of illegal immigrants populating the industry will change.

Protecting jobs?

National unemployment hovered around 8.5 percent in December 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

How much E-Verify protects American jobs depends on whether you believe Americans are willing to pick cherries or apples or work in the cramped quarters of a restaurant kitchen.

In many cases, illegal workers perform jobs most Americans do not want, Langer said.

“The problem is people who come and break the law -- drug dealing, theft, etc.,” Langer said. “Those people are not going to be general contractors -- hanging drywall, plaster, etc.”

The restaurant industry, like the agriculture industry, is watching the E-Verify issue, said Anthony Anton, president/CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association.

Whether restaurants use E-Verify or not often depends on turnover rates and how well those doing the hiring know prospective employees, he noted.

Anton personally favors a federal answer that would provide people a path to citizenship that would also address national security concerns.

“There are those who say ‘throw everybody out’ and there are those that say ‘let everybody in,’” Anton said. “It’s like everything else -- we need a comprehensive solution.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.