Businesses balk at immigration checks

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Monday it opposes a new screening requirement to weed illegal immigrants out of the federal contractor work force, and said Bush” >President Bush acted illegally in signing an executive order mandating use of the program.

E-Verify, the voluntary electronic system employers can use to check employees’ work eligibility, has become the key fight over businesses and interior immigration enforcement, with some states moving to require participation and Mr. Bush signing an executive order in June telling federal contractors they also must use it.

“It contravenes the intent of Congress to make participation in this program voluntary and is not justified by the general procurement powers of the president,” said Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits for the chamber, which filed a 26-page brief opposing making the program mandatory for contractors.

He said businesses will accept new verification requirements, but they must be part of a broad package that in the past has included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and a new foreign worker program to bring in more immigrant labor.

The Department of Homeland Security is writing rules to implement Mr. Bush’s executive order, and Monday was the deadline for filing comments.

Businesses have dreaded making the program mandatory, arguing it places too much of a burden on them to check employees, and opens them up to discrimination complaints. But the Bush administration, after years of lukewarm treatment, has recently embraced the program.

Laura Keehner, a DHS spokeswoman, said they will review all comments before issuing final rules, but remain committed to the program.

“E-verify works,” she said. “It is used by over 66,000 businesses, it has proven useful so that they can quickly and easily adjudicate the eligibility of their work force.”

E-Verify began a decade ago as a something called the “basic pilot program” to test employee verification. It matches the employee’s given Social Security number to federal records to determine if the applicant is eligible.

In the last few years its use has grown dramatically as businesses look to indemnify themselves from charges they are hiring illegal immigrants and as some states such as Arizona require its use.

On the other side of the equation, Illinois enacted a law forbidding use of the system, and DHS sued to stop the law.

Critics, including key Democrats in Congress, say the program has a high error rate, meaning it initially says some legal workers are not eligible.

Many of those, though, are employees who changed names or citizenship status but did not inform federal authorities. DHS counters that the actual error rate, where the problem lies with Social Security rather than the employee, is actually less than 1 percent.

E-Verify must be reauthorized by Congress this year. Just before leaving for its summer vacation the House voted to extend the voluntary program, though it also asked for the Government Accountability Office to study the program’s problems.

Separately, the major piece of immigration legislation in Congress this year is the measure sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler, North Carolina Democrat, which would make E-Verify mandatory for all businesses. Democratic leaders have not committed to debating the bill.

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