Rick Santorum has called for every business in the country to use E-Verify, the government’s database for screening out illegal immigrant workers, but his own presidential campaign has not signed up to use the program.
That is not a national problem because the system is still voluntary on the federal level. But it could be a problem if Mr. Santorum hired any staff in Arizona, which holds its primary next week and which has made use of E-Verify mandatory for anyone doing business there.
It also could have been a problem in South Carolina, where a similar law went into effect at the beginning of this year — three weeks before that state’s primary.
Mr. Santorum’s campaign didn’t respond to more than a half-dozen emails and phone calls seeking comment about the situation.
Two of his fellow candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, also have called for the program to be made mandatory for all businesses, but their campaign teams’ records are mixed.
Mr. Romney has an outside payroll consultant that his campaign said checks the hires through E-Verify in the states where it’s required. That company, Insperity, is a registered user of the system.
“The Romney campaign uses E-Verify in a number of states and, in other states, completes all required paperwork to ensure all employees are eligible to work in the United States,” said Amanda Henneberg, a campaign spokeswoman.
Mr. Gingrich also uses an Arizona-based company for his campaign hiring in that state, a spokesman said.
But Mr. Gingrich said he does not use the system for his own suite of companies, including Gingrich Productions and the Center for Health Transformation. He said he is certain that everyone he has hired is legal, so running names through the database would be useless.
“I don’t think we hire anybody who would qualify for it. I think everybody we hire right now is an American citizen,” Mr. Gingrich said in an interview.
Under the terms of voluntary E-Verify use, companies must screen every new hire and cannot pick and choose based on suspicion that someone might be foreign or might be in the country illegally.
Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager for NumbersUSA, which advocates a crackdown on illegal immigration and lobbies for mandatory E-Verify use, said Mr. Gingrich’s answer showed a misunderstanding of the system.
“I guess we have a lot more education to do if Gingrich is unaware that E-Verify is for all new hires, not just for those who say they’re not citizens or don’t seem to be citizens,” she said.
Ms. Jenks said it was a good sign that at least some of the campaigns are obeying the state laws, but that the candidates could do better in leading by example nationwide.
“It certainly would be nice if candidates who are calling for E-Verify were actually going out of their way to use E-Verify. At the very least, using it would show them what a good system it is,” Ms. Jenks said.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the fourth major Republican candidate, does not back mandatory E-Verify use, and his campaign has not signed up to use it — though as a member of Congress, his official office is already required to do so.
Mr. Paul’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In a twist, Mr. Santorum was signed up to use E-Verify when he was a senator. Under the 1996 amendment that established the program — which Mr. Santorum opposed — every congressional office is required to use the system.
Immigration has proved a thorny issue for the campaigns all around, and nowhere will that play a larger role than in Arizona, whose remote areas bordering Mexico are the key crossing points for illegal immigrants.
Politicians, particularly on the Republican side, see E-Verify as a way to weed illegal immigrants out of the workforce.
The program has always been optional at the federal level, but Arizona in 2007 became the first state to require all businesses to use the system. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state law, and several other states have followed Arizona’s lead.
Still, businesses have been slow to sign up. In Arizona, the state Republican and Democratic parties are registered. That isn’t the case in Mississippi or South Carolina, which have E-Verify requirements.
“E-Verify is a faulty federal database that imposes huge burdens on small startups, and campaigns are effectively small startups,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant rights group. “It doesn’t surprise me they don’t want to use it. Nor does it surprise me politicians would say one thing and do another.”
President Obama supports making E-Verify mandatory, but only as part of broader legislation that would grant legal status to most illegal immigrants already in the country.
Not doing both at the same time, his administration says, would create a nightmare for businesses and could push illegal immigrants even deeper into the underground economy.
Mr. Sharry said he doubts that any of the three Republican candidates who favor mandatory E-Verify use would be able to make good on that promise once in the White House, because business groups and libertarian-minded Republicans would oppose it.
But Ms. Jenks said she expects Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum or Mr. Gingrich to follow through.
“There’s no downside with E-Verify, especially with high unemployment,” she said. “Once you go on the record as strongly as you have, it’s kind of hard to back down, especially when the votes are clearly there in Congress.”
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this report.