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One centerpiece of the push for a new immigration law is an expansion of E-Verify. That's the federal online system that allows businesses to check employees' immigration status. It's been around since 1996. Right now, E-Verify is voluntary in some places and mandatory in others. The immigration bill in the Senate would make it mandatory everywhere.
NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Arizona on how E-Verify is working so far.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: PPEP is a Tucson-based social service organization with more than 500 employees. HR Manager Susan Marsett uses E-Verify for every new hire.
SUSAN MARSETT: So it asks you to enter first name, last name, middle initial, maiden name if there is one, date of birth, Social Security number.
ROBBINS: After entering that information and more, Marsett goes to the next screen.
MARSETT: I push continue and it instantly would tell me this person is eligible to work or this person has a tentative nonconfirmation.
ROBBINS: Until a few years ago, E-Verify was difficult to use. And even the government said it had problems with accuracy. Now, DHS says it confirms eligible employees more than 98 percent of the time. That's why Congress says it's ready for prime time. It's still not foolproof.
The ACLU opposes E-Verify, saying it's vulnerable to identity theft. Someone with a stolen Social Security number and a driver's license could game the system, for instance. That's why former Customs and Border Protection head Jay Ahern says E-Verify needs more safeguards.
JAY AHERN: Well, if you really want to be absolutely certain that somebody who's presenting themselves for employment verification, you have to have the matching biometric with it as well, whether that be fingerprint or something else.
ROBBINS: The Senate immigration bill requires employees to have documents with photos that match the E-Verify database. That could make it a cost-effective way to screen for unauthorized workers. Former Immigration and Naturalization Service director Doris Meissner says mandatory E-Verify would free up resources to look for unscrupulous employers who hire off the books or pay substandard wages.
DORIS MEISSNER: Most employers do want to comply with the law. They don't want to be vulnerable to law enforcement. And so, those who are outliers then are a more isolated, smaller group and you can focus your enforcement on that.
ROBBINS: Back in Tucson, Susan Marsett says it works.
MARSETT: It works fine for us. I mean, it's an extra step. It takes extra time. And do we really like to do it? No. But we have to do it, and so we do it.
ROBBINS: PPEP also has to use it because it's in Arizona. That state made it mandatory for all employers in 2008. And back then, just knowing it was in use was apparently enough.
MARSETT: Yes, when they first instituted E-Verify in Arizona, a lot of people were very scared, especially we work with the farm working community.
ROBBINS: People left the state to avoid getting caught by E-Verify. Now, Marsett says if the program says someone is not authorized to work, they don't have to be asked to leave.
MARSETT: Typically, if someone gets a tentative nonconfirmation and it's a valid thing, they'll leave on their own.
ROBBINS: Which is exactly what Arizona legislators say they had in mind. It saves them from having to enforce the state law. In fact, in five years, only two Arizona businesses have been prosecuted under the state law. Twenty states have since passed laws requiring some kind of participation in E-Verify. DHS says more employers sign up every day. But without a mandate from Congress, just 7 percent of all U.S. employers voluntarily use the program.
Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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