After months on the back burner, the immigration issue returns to the political forefront Thursday when House Republicans take the first steps to require all businesses to verify their employees' work status electronically.
The action starts in the House Judiciary Committee, which will begin considering a bill to mandate use of E-Verify, a government-run system that enables businesses to check potential employees' Social Security numbers against a government database. The program is available currently on a voluntary basis.
Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican and author of the bill, said he considers it a jobs measure that could help put Americans back to work in tough economic times by weeding out unauthorized employees. The bill has gained the support of businesses, which want a uniform national standard.
"This legislation represents a legitimate balancing of many competing interests," the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in announcing its backing earlier this year.
Opponents, including the Obama administration, have said there is a place for E-Verify, but it must be coupled with a broader rewrite of immigration laws that includes legalization and a way to handle a future flow of immigrants.
"If your answer is to enforce a dysfunctional system, you're going to have problems," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, of California, the ranking Democrat on the immigration subcommittee.
She said the program is not foolproof and added that the error rate is particularly high among naturalized citizens. She also pointed to studies that found half of illegal immigrant workers whose names were submitted were approved anyway.
It is the first major immigration legislation to see action since last year's lame-duck session of Congress, when Democrats tried but failed to pass the Dream Act, which would have legalized many illegal immigrant young adults.
In lieu of congressional action, the Obama administration announced it will use discretion to halt deportations of those who would have been affected by the Dream Act.
Mr. Smith said his committee will begin considering the bill with opening statements at Thursday's meeting and likely will consider amendments to the measure next week. He also has scheduled action on a separate bill to revamp agricultural visas.
The legislation mandating E-Verify has a difficult path ahead. Several House committees have jurisdiction, and even if they all approve it, it would need to secure time on the crowded House schedule. Then it would have to pass the Senate, which Democrats control, and be signed by President Obama.
Mr. Smith said if the bill gets that far, Mr. Obama will sign it.
"When you have something that's supported by 82 percent of the American people, I don't believe the president will veto it," he said.
The bill would phase in the requirement over two years, with larger businesses required to comply within six months and the smallest businesses given more time.
E-Verify was created in 1996, when it was known as the basic pilot program and was a voluntary method for businesses to check their employees' immigration status.
As in many other immigration issues, states took the lead in expanding its use, and more than a dozen states have rules requiring at least some businesses to submit workers' information. Arizona's version was upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year.
The Smith bill would supercede those state laws, providing a uniform national framework, but immigration crackdown advocates said it also would take away states' ability to punish companies that flout the law.
As of Sept. 10, 287,995 employers were registered to use E-Verify, representing 947,445 hiring sites. In fiscal 2011, which began Oct. 1, the system had run 16.2 million queries.
The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs the program, said accuracy is improving. The latest figures show 3 out of every 1,000 workers receive an initial, incorrect rejection of their work status.
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