Obama casts himself as final arbiter on immigration

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Businesses are increasingly open to using an electronic verification system for checking their employees’ work eligibility — embracing a tool that is certain to be at the center of any final immigration agreement in Congress.

A new survey of restaurants found a strikingly high number of them said they not only use E-Verify, the current electronic check system, but have found it to be free of hassles and errors.


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That contrasts with the reputation of E-Verify, which for years has been a focal point of criticism from immigrant-rights advocates who warn it could lead to discrimination against legal immigrant workers.

“As it’s gotten more accurate and gotten more attention and gotten more broadly used, people are starting to say, ‘This could be a tool for me,’” said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a coalition of businesses pushing for an overhaul of the system. “If we’d done the survey four or five years ago, the results would have looked very, very different.”

Once the most controversial of immigration enforcement tools, E-Verify is now accepted by most parties as an essential element in the immigration overhaul bills that will be debated in Congress this year. The Senate bill repeals the E-Verify program but sets up a very similar “electronic verification system,” and House lawmakers negotiating a bipartisan bill have said they will have E-Verify or something like it in their legislation.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican, last week announced a standalone bill to make E-Verify use mandatory for employers.

“Illegal workers compete with American workers for jobs and drive down their wages. The nationwide use of E-Verify could increase wages and open up millions of jobs for unemployed and underemployed Americans,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who sponsored the bill and is working with Mr. Goodlatte to get it passed.

E-Verify matches a potential worker’s Social Security number against a government database and then tells employers whether that person is authorized to work.

Critics say E-Verify still has an error rate that is too high, particularly for legal immigrants who are authorized to work but their information in the system is not correct. But proponents say the system has gotten much better, and the businesses who responded in the new survey seemed to agree.

In fact, 80 percent of restaurants who use the system said they would recommend it to colleagues, and 79 percent said the system had been accurate in every instance.

The survey, conducted by ImmigrationWorks USA and the National Restaurant Association, included 789 restaurant owners and others in the food supply chain. The poll was conducted online late last year from businesses who chose to reply, so the results aren’t scientific, but it does capture the experiences of a number of businesses that are using the system and generally reported it is a help.

President Obama has embraced mandatory E-Verify, but only as part of a broader deal on immigration.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama said he will be the final arbiter of whether an immigration bill can succeed this year, saying it must boost border security and rewrite the legal system, but also must give illegal immigrants a definite path to citizenship.

“If it doesn’t meet those criteria then I will not support such a bill,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference at the White House.

He said the Senate immigration bill meets all of his goals, but he reserved judgment on the House, where negotiators have said the bipartisan deal is going to end up more conservative-leaning.

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