Today, the House Immigration Subcommittee held a hearing on the E-Verify system, a tool to help employers electronically verify that their employees have permission to work in the United States. Although E-Verify remains largely voluntary—except for federal contractors, employers in certain states that have made it mandatory, and a few other exceptions—some members of Congress and immigration restrictionists have decided that expanding E-Verify and making it mandatory will flush unauthorized workers out of the workforce, create jobs for unemployed U.S. citizens, and resolve our immigration problems. While everyone agrees that high unemployment levels must be addressed, simplistic measures like mandating E-Verify are not going to open up jobs for millions of unemployed workers.

During the hearing, USCIS—the agency that administers E-Verify—testified that there have been many improvements to the system, and that they received a high customer satisfaction rating. While it is true that E-Verify has made significant advances, Richard Stana of the GAO testified that problems, in fact, remain. For example, E-Verify cannot identify identity fraud. A recent study found that E-Verify had erroneously confirmed half of the undocumented workers run through the system as work authorized. Furthermore, the system’s error rates would still place considerable strain on workers, including U.S. citizens.

Take Jessica St. Pierre, a U.S. citizen who after spending days navigating government bureaucracy trying to fix an error in her record (a spacing issue in her last name), was fired from her job. With the current error rate of .8%, 8,000 of every million workers would receive an erroneous response from the government. But that’s probably underestimating the error rate. Places already using E-Verify have experienced much higher error rates. L.A. County, for example, audited its use of E-Verify and found that between 2.0% and 2.7% of E-Verify findings were erroneous. According to Tyler Moran, policy director at the National Immigration Law Center:

This means that in a mandatory system, 3-4 million workers would have to fix their records. It would be as if all of the residents in Los Angeles had to visit a Social Security or DHS office to keep their jobs.

And E-Verify is not “free” for employers as some would like you to believe, and imposing additional regulations on businesses may hamper their ability to create jobs. In fact, a recent Bloomberg study states that if E-Verify had been mandatory for employers last year, it would have cost U.S. employers $2.7 billion.

According to immigration attorney, Marketa Lindt, many employers do not have the resources to train their staff and to maintain the E-Verify system for their company, and do not want to deal with the error rates in the E-Verify system. When a company receives a tentative nonconfirmation (TNC) on a new employee, resolving it is not just a hassle for the employee, it also costs the business money and affects productivity, given the length of time taken by the government to resolve the TNCs.

“I work with a manufacturing company that uses E-Verify and that operates in an area where a high rate of applicants present documents that ultimately fail E-Verify,” Lindt said. “It is difficult for me to explain to the company why the government forces it to hire, train and pay each unauthorized worker almost $1000 in wages before forcing the employer to fire the person.”

Employers who find themselves in this situation will find it difficult to create new jobs. In the meantime, unscrupulous employers can get around the system by hiring workers off the books or simply failing to run certain workers through the system.

Every serious comprehensive immigration proposal in the last several years has included the expansion of E-Verify as a critical component of enforcing and maintaining a well-functioning immigration system. But simply layering mandatory E-Verify on top of a dysfunctional immigration system and a large undocumented workforce will not succeed. Without a well-functioning immigration system that legalizes the current workforce, allows employers to hire the legal workers they need, and expands E-Verify in a measured way, mandatory E-Verify will result in a bigger underground economy, lost tax revenue, and lost jobs.

Photo by Nick J Webb.