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A new Illinois law is raising the ire of federal authorities. The Department of Homeland Security says the state law will punish employers who use a federal online database to make sure they aren't hiring illegal immigrants. DHS has filed a lawsuit to block implementation of the Illinois law, but Illinois officials say the Social Security Administration database is riddled with errors and shouldn't be used.

NPR's David Schaper reports on the fight over a program known as E-Verify.

DAVID SCHAPER: Fernando Tenoco(ph) thought he was living the American dream. He emigrated from Mexico as a teen in the early '70s, finished high school, fell in love, got married, had a son and bought a house. And along the way in 1989, Fernando Tenoco became a U.S. citizen.

Mr. FERNANDO TENOCO (Immigrant): I feel good, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SCHAPER: That was until March of 2006 when Tenoco applied for a job at a Tyson Foods processing plant on Chicago's South Side.

Mr. TENOCO: I start Monday 7 o'clock. And two hours later, they call me to the office and the lady say, your Social Security, no good, and your citizen(ph) papers, no good. You're fired. No more job for you.

SCHAPER: Tyson uses the E-Verify program to check if job applicants are legal. The check on Tenoco came back as a tentative non-confirmation, meaning the system could not initially verify he could work here legally. Tenoco eventually cleared up the problem, but Tyson still wouldn't hire him back until he got an attorney. In the meantime, Tenoco says he was humiliated.

Mr. TENOCO: They (unintelligible) like illegal, you know?

SCHAPER: They thought you were illegal? They thought…

Mr. TENOCO: Yes, illegal. Yes.

SCHAPER: Criminal?

Mr. TENOCO: Yes, criminal. Yes.

SCHAPER: But you're an American.

Mr. TENOCO: Yes. I'm an American, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TIM BELL (Executive Director, Chicago Workers' Collaborative): It happens on a pretty regular basis.

SCHAPER: Tim Bell runs the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, a workers rights organization.

Mr. BELL: We hear lots of stories about people who get no-match letters and it's because they had changed their name or because their name is Gonzalo(ph) and their name is spelled with an S instead of a Z.

SCHAPER: Bell and other workers advocates say the database is used by the E-Verify program are full of mistakes. They say that a recent independent evaluation commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security itself found them, quote, "not sufficiently up-to-date." The Social Security Administration estimates there are close to 18 million discrepancies in its records, including almost 13 million mistakes involving U.S. citizens. And not only are workers wrongly fired because of it, but Bell says some are never hired or told there might be errors in their employment records.

The new Illinois law, which goes into effect in January, would prohibit Illinois employers from enrolling in the E-Verify program until the federal government can prove it is 99 percent reliable.

Chris Williams, executive director of the Working Hands Legal Clinic in Chicago, says Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is wrong to suggest Illinois is using the law to protect illegal immigrants.

Mr. CHRIS WILLIAMS (Attorney for Working Hands Legal Clinic in Chicago): It's a worker right law, worker protection law, it's not an immigration law. But it says if you're going to use this database as a precursor to getting a job in the United States, the database has to be correct.

SCHAPER: The Illinois law passed the state legislature with bipartisan support and was embraced by immigrant rights groups and by mainstream business groups like the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. But Homeland Security officials say the E-Verify program is a reliable tool for employers to ensure they are not hiring illegal immigrants and say it is getting better all the time. They say it verifies a worker's legal status almost instantly more than 90 percent of the time. And Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke says most of the tentative non-confirmations can be corrected in a matter of days.

Mr. RUSS KNOCKE (Department of Homeland Security Spokesman): Nothing is ever perfect in our society. We have a tool that is voluntary for employers to be able to use, to take a lot of uncertainty off the table and enable them to ensure that they're in greater compliance with our immigration laws. It's astounding to me that anybody, particularly the state government in Illinois, would want to interfere with that.

SCHAPER: Across the country, more than 22,000 companies participate in E-Verify. And as of October 1st, all federal agencies must use the program to verify the legal status of new hires. The Department of Homeland Security wants to continue to expand the program. But for now, Illinois lawmakers are standing in its way.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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