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COMMENTARY: NEVA to the rescue

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2008

There is no lack of opinion among members of Congress on how to address illegal immigration. The debate is as heated and divisive as any in recent years.

Public reaction to the president's latest executive order - requiring federal contractors to use the voluntary E-Verify system - only highlights the intensity of this debate.

We represent districts in Arizona and Texas - two states on the front line of illegal immigration. Increased worksite enforcement has led to plant raids in Texas where hundreds of illegal workers were arrested and businesses temporarily shuttered. In addition, Arizona has established the toughest sanctions in the nation - revoking business licenses - against companies hiring unauthorized workers.

We strongly believe employers should be held responsible if they knowingly hire illegal immigrants, and recognize that the federal government has failed to provide a reliable system for identifying undocumented workers. The current federal employment verification system - E-Verify - is plagued by inaccuracies and is easily manipulated by false documents and stolen identities.

In requiring employers to help reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into America, the federal government must provide them the proper tools to effectively and efficiently do just that. Most would agree that stopping U.S. employers from hiring undocumented workers must be part of the solution.

The bipartisan New Employee Verification Act (NEVA) will give employers the tools they need - helping to ensure a legal work force while safeguarding worker identities.

NEVA replaces the current failed, paper-based I-9 process with a mandatory electronic system to verify the work authorization of new hires. The system would rely on the use of fewer, more secure identity documents and employee information would be transmitted through each state's new hire reporting system. That system is currently used to help track down deadbeat dads. It is used by 90 percent of all employers in the nation.

The NEVA proposal would only confirm U.S. citizens' work authorization through the Social Security Administration, so there is no "Big Brother" law enforcement agency building new databases and violating the privacy of law-abiding U.S. citizens. Work authorization for noncitizens would continue to be confirmed through the Department of Homeland Security.

NEVA would also allow employers to voluntarily access a network of private sector experts, certified by the federal government, to not only verify work authorization, but also authenticate workers' identities and secure those identities with a biometric.

Most importantly, the bill would protect the Social Security Administration's primary mission and trust funds by authorizing employment verification only after the SSA has been given the funding it needs to implement verification and improve the accuracy of its databases in advance.

The longer Congress fails to act, the more the patchwork of conflicting state and local verification laws and federal mandates will grow. Congress must finally do its job to provide a practical and effective system for U.S. employers to verify their workers' employment status.

Sam Johnson, Texas Republican, and Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, are members of the U.S. House of Representatives.