DHS upgrades employment eligibility screening system

USCIS director Emilio Gonzalez called the program "very important." USCIS director Emilio Gonzalez called the program "very important." Carlos Barria/Landov
The Homeland Security Department launched an upgraded version Tuesday of its Internet-based system that helps employers screen out illegal workers in the hiring process; a day earlier, the Justice Department filed suit against Illinois for trying to block employers from using the program.

More than 23,000 employers nationwide participate voluntarily in E-Verify, formerly known as the Basic Pilot employment eligibility verification program. The Web-based system allows employers to check the status of newly hired workers by matching the information they present against records stored in Social Security Administration and Homeland Security databases.

During the hiring process, both citizens and noncitizens must present documentation showing they are eligible to work. Noncitizens may present drivers licenses and Social Security cards, permanent resident cards known as green cards, or employment authorization documents.

The enhanced version of E-Verify launched this week allows employers to match photos on green cards and employment authorization documents with the photos in Homeland Security's database, which were stored when the documents were created. If the photos don't match, there's a strong likelihood that the document is not authentic.

"We want to give employers the tools they need to make the right decisions about hiring," said Emilio Gonzalez, director of Homeland Security's bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the program.

Not everyone agrees. The Illinois legislature recently amended the state's Right to Privacy in the Workplace Act to prohibit employers from taking part in the E-Verify program, claiming that verification takes too long and leaves too much room for error, potentially treating employees unfairly.

Homeland Security officials dispute the notion that the real-time database searches are too time consuming or produce erroneous results, and on Monday the Justice Department filed suit against Illinois on Homeland Security's behalf. The lawsuit "seeks to invalidate an Illinois state law that frustrates our ability to assist employers in making sure their workforce is legal, and in doing so conflicts with federal law," said Carl Nichols, deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil division, in a statement.

"We think we're on strong legal footing," Gonzalez said. "At the end of the day, this is something very important to the department -- states getting in the way of immigration law." Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was more blunt in comments to the Chicago Tribune Tuesday: "We're beginning to see the schizophrenic nature of the way some politicians are looking at [immigration enforcement] . . . They're now coming back and saying, 'We want you to enforce the law, but we don't want you to do anything that would actually lead to enforcement.' "

As public concern about illegal immigration has grown in recent years, more employers are seeking ways to verify the authenticity of documents presented by the workers they hire, said Gerri Ratliff, deputy associate director of DHS' national security and records verification directorate.

"This is . . . a significant step forward" in detecting fraud, Ratliff said. Photo substitution is a serious problem, and being able to flag mismatches in green cards and other immigration documents will go a long way toward detecting such fraud. However, Ratliff acknowledged that the system remains unable to flag mismatched photos on drivers licenses, which noncitizens also may use for identification.

In more than 800 queries of green card and employment authorization documents conducted during a pilot test of the photo-verification tool, three mismatches were found. None of the three employees presenting the mismatched documents contested the results, Ratliff said.

According to Ratliff and Gonzalez, an independent audit showed that 93 percent of queries through E-Verify are answered immediately or the next day. The remaining 7 percent are categorized as tentative nonconfirmations, and employees have eight days to contest the findings and present mitigating evidence; CIS then has two days to resolve the discrepancy. Nonconfirmations may indicate fraud, or perhaps simple oversight. For example, people who failed to notify the Social Security Administration following a marriage or divorce that resulted in a name change would be flagged, Ratliff said.

Despite the legal battle in Illinois, other states are embracing the program, she added. "There's a lot of things coming together that we think will lead to exponential growth" in E-Verify, she said. Other federal agencies are to begin using the program Oct. 1, and several states, including Arizona and Georgia, are considering laws that would require state contractors to use it. CIS also is working with the State Department to be able to query visa photos and eventually passport photos maintained by State.

Additionally, some states have approached the agency about linking their drivers license databases with E-Verify to reduce the use of forged identification documents, Ratliff said, although she declined to name the states because no decisions have yet been made. Such linkages may be critical to the ultimate success of the program.

About 2,000 employers join the voluntary program every month, Ratliff said.

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