Immigration checks for contract jobs spur debate

Technology companies fear that new proposals threaten to disadvantage them by mandating that all federal contractors participate in what industry groups say is an error-prone, automated system for confirming the legal status of workers.

Companies now must only check the status of workers through document verification. Jennifer Kerber, senior director of homeland security for the Information Technology Association of America, said ITAA members "want to hire within the rules of the system, and an automated tool that would verify [workers] and take the burden off them so they don't have to be document authentication experts is great. But they need a system that works."

E-Verify is a Web-based system run by the Homeland Security Department that lets employers electronically verify the work eligibility of new hires. Currently, the program is voluntary, but several spending proposals for federal agencies would require that vendors holding contracts with those agencies use the system.

Soon, Homeland Security will look more favorably upon enrolled vendors in evaluating bids for its contracts. And in August, department Secretary Michael Chertoff proposed making all federal contractors subject to E-Verify checks.

Alan Chvotkin with the Professional Services Council, a trade group representing contractors, said many of the problems with the system are starting to be resolved by agency personnel offices, which the president directed to use the system starting last month.

But the council wants congressional appropriators to drop all e-verification proposals for contractors until the administration's regulatory changes are complete. Chvotkin said the system "still generates significant errors that significantly add to the workload for little added value to employers."

Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, said research by her organization, which favors stronger immigration restrictions, shows that mandated participation would be the most effective and fairest approach to verifying worker eligibility.

But the Human Resource Initiative for a Legal Workforce opposes mandates because it claims that E-Verify's "non-confirmation" rate would wrongfully reject many citizens and permanent residents, resulting in lengthy bureaucratic ordeals and potential job losses for many.

Vaughan said such claims are "incorrect and misleading."

According to Homeland Security, E-Verify reflects the data in department and Social Security Administration databases. E-Verify gives people notice that they might have to correct information in government databases if their records are wrong because of things like transposed numbers or misspelled names.

Employees get reasonable time to correct clerical errors or changes in names and addresses before adverse action is taken, Vaughan added.

Hudson Institute Senior Fellow John Fonte, an immigration expert, said he backs mandated e-verification for federal contractors but also wants to see the government improve the accuracy of the matching technology.

"We should be enforcing the law," he said. "If there are Social Security number problems, this means that there is even more reason to get things fixed so that individuals will be able to receive Social Security when the time comes."

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