President Obama's new director of Citizenship and Immigration Services on Monday defended the accuracy of E-Verify, the government's electronic verification system for workers, putting himself at odds with immigrant rights groups that have been strong supporters of the president.
Expanding E-Verify is one of several immigrant enforcement moves the Obama administration has made that have caused alarm among rights and immigrant advocates. Those groups had hoped Mr. Obama would move early to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and give the nation's illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But Alejandro Mayorkas, who was sworn in last month as director of USCIS, said the agency is continuing to improve the system and get it ready in case Congress mandates it for all U.S. businesses as part of an eventual immigration overhaul. The Obama administration has expanded use of the system, which matches workers' Social Security numbers against a database to determine whether they are eligible to work.
"The error rate is, as I understand it, smaller than it's ever been," Mr. Mayorkas said, adding that he takes the remaining errors very seriously. "I understand that a small error rate can still mean a good number of people are impacted, and so we are working every day. I am personally involved in the improvement of that error rate."
Early studies showed that about 0.5 percent of workers whose names were submitted to E-Verify were initially deemed ineligible but later found to be eligible - often because the worker's name or immigrant status had changed but the Social Security Administration had not been informed of the change.
"It seems that E-Verify has a kind of momentum that's undeniable at this point," said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that calls for stricter immigration limits. He said E-Verify has passed vetting by federal courts and said if the federal government doesn't push to expand its use, states will.
Mr. Mayorkas said one of his goals is to have USCIS ready to move ahead with a legalization program once Congress acts. Questions include how and when USCIS would accept applications, and how the agency, which is paper-based, can process them.
If the bill restricts legalization to those who have been in the country some period of time, he said they'll also have to work out how applicants can prove they meet the time requirement.
The director would not say when they might be ready, but Mr. Camarota said it's clear USCIS currently can't handle the "tsunami of applications."
"Nobody who's serious thinks that USCIS has the administrative capacity to vet 10 million illegal immigrants if we decide to make them legal. The only way we'd do that is rubber-stamp them," he said.
Mr. Mayorkas also said he will broaden USCIS's outreach to people the agency serves - the legal immigrant community. He held a meeting last week with stakeholders from immigrant rights groups, businesses and law enforcement agencies, and said he'll hold more meetings as he tours the country this month.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigrant rights, said they expect a 180-degree reversal from the policy he said they saw from the Bush administration. He also said they expect Mr. Mayorkas to focus on getting the agency ready for an immigration policy overhaul.
"It's not so much outreach and engagement, it's getting ready for implementation," he said.
Mr. Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba and whose parents fled to the U.S. in 1960, appeared to choke up in a session with a small group of reporters when he recalled his family's financial sacrifices - including how they saved wax paper from their sandwiches to be reused.
He said stories like that make him determined to ensure immigrants get good services for the money they are paying his agency.
"Some people very well may have to do the very same thing in pursuit of the benefits our country provides them. That hard-earned money has to be appropriately spent," he said.
USCIS is funded mostly by fees immigrants pay to process their applications. The Bush administration pushed through a series of fee increases to improve the agency's facilities and quality of service, but immigrant rights groups objected, saying the prices were too high.
Mr. Mayorkas said those fees will be reviewed and he won't rule out lowering or raising them.
Still, Mr. Noorani at the National Immigration Forum said he expects Congress to try to reduce those fees when it takes up immigration.
"Our expectation is that we're going to see immigration reform by early 2010 and part of immigration reform is going to be an acknowledgment by the nation that we have to invest in immigrants just as much as they're investing in us," he said.
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