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Some local governments started taking up immigration after proposals for a federal overhaul died in Congress this year. And a growing number of businesses are adopting one part of that proposed overhaul on their own.

As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, they're signing on to a computer program to check the legal status of new hires.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In recent years, the program has doubled and doubled again. Some 30,000 businesses have signed on to what was first known as Basic Pilot. But after running focus groups, the Department of Homeland Security now calls E-Verify. One thousand more businesses join every week. Companies like Fort Myer Construction in Washington, D.C.

Human resources assistant Carla Schmidt says she simply took an hour-long online tutorial to learn how to check applicants' legal status against federal databases.

Ms. CARLA SCHMIDT (Human Resources Assistant, Fort Myer Construction Corporation): As soon as you click submit, it'll tell you something, either authorized, not authorized, or in process.

LUDDEN: Instantaneously?

Ms. SCHMIDT: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

LUDDEN: While E-Verify finds false documents, it hasn't been able to detect real but stolen IDs. A new system hopes to catch some of that by letting employers compare the photos on certain immigration documents.

Fort Myer's human resources director, Mike Caro, says it takes away the awkward uncertainty of those times he suspects a document may be false.

Mr. MIKE CARO (Human Resources Director, Fort Myer Construction Corporation): We say, okay, fine. You say it's legitimate. We're going to check you through Homeland Security. And traditionally, those people we've quote, unquote "questioned," don't return.

LUDDEN: There've been at least a dozen in the past year the system didn't approve. And Caro says, when they didn't protest, he assumed they were in the U.S. illegally.

Fort Myer's project engineer, Rahi Golshan, did dispute his non-confirmation and was able to prove he had the right to work after all.

Mr. RAHI GOLSHAN (Project Engineer, Fort Myer Construction Corporation): I think I called DHS first and then they told me to call Social Security. And then I took a visit up to Baltimore and went to Social Security office there.

LUDDEN: It turned out Golshan's records had not been updated since he became a U.S. citizen. There are many cases like that. Homeland Security says it's hoping to clear them up preemptively. But on top of that, critics point out there are millions of Social Security records with typos or misspellings.

Nearly four percent have errors, says Jim Harper of The Cato Institute.

Mr. JIM HARPER (Director of Information Policy Studies, The Cato Institute): That represents one in 25 new hires in the U.S. being told by the federal government, you can't work unless you go get this straightened out.

LUDDEN: Harper believes if the program were mandated nationwide, as some in Congress propose, the resulting flood of fixes would be a human resources nightmare. And there's another concern.

Ms. TYLER MORAN (Employment Policy Director, National Immigration Law Center): The problem is that some employers follow the rules and some employers don't.

LUDDEN: Tyler Moran is with the National Immigration Law Center. She says to avoid racial profiling, employers are only supposed to conduct the check after they hire someone. But one of the government's own studies found some 40 percent of businesses didn't do that.

Ms. MORAN: What the employer was trying to do is cover themselves and say, you know what? I'm not going to put any energy filling out this form until I check and see if there's any problems. And so they put them through the system as a way of kind of prescreening them, and because of the high error rates, they're going to be work off the right people who are going to receive this tentative non-confirmation.

LUDDEN: But they may never know that if the employer never tells them. Katherine Lotspeich is the acting chief of the immigration agency division that runs E-verify. She says officials are aware of the problem.

Ms. KATHERINE LOTSPEICH (Acting Chief, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services): We are in the process of standing up a monitoring and compliance unit, where we would be able to follow up with employers that were not using the program properly.

LUDDEN: Homeland Security is also addressing employee rights in this radio spot that recently started running in Arizona.

(Soundbite of radio ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: Ads in English as well tell listeners they can keep working while they can test the computer program's results. Homeland Security plans a national media campaign for businesses as well early next year. Meanwhile, it's forging ahead, requiring E-verify where it can. Federal agencies had to start using it last month, and Lotspeich says officials are working on regulations to mandate it for federal contractors.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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