Verifying employment

A voluntary federal program called “E-Verify” has been a cornerstone in the Bush administration’s fight against illegal immigration. Employers willing to join up would be able to run would-be employees through an instant electronic check, confirming the validity of their Social Security cards and other forms of American identification.

But the arrests last week of nearly 600 immigrant workers at a manufacturing plant in Laurel, Miss., has renewed the debate over E-Verify.

In the largest immigration sweep at a single site in U.S. history, federal agents raided the Howard Industries electrical transformer plant Monday … despite the fact that the company joined the E-Verify work eligibility system last year.

But The Washington Post reports a key weakness in E-Verify is that, while it can determine whether a Social Security number presented by a worker is an “issued number,” it often cannot determine whether the number belongs to the applicant. Many workers thus manage to evade detection by using another person’s number — sometimes a number stolen from some far-away American who doesn’t even realize his or her identity has been purloined.

That was allegedly the case Monday, when dozens of U.S. agents sealed entrances to Howard Industries’ Mississippi plant, stopping production while they executed a criminal search warrant for evidence related to aggravated identity theft, fraudulent use of Social Security documents and other crimes. A civil search warrant for illegal immigrants was also executed, turning up suspect workers from Mexico, Guatemala, Germany, Peru, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, the government says.

Was this a factory, or the Experiment in International Living?

About 475 workers were sent to a detention center in Jena, La., for deportation; 106 were released for humanitarian reasons to tend to a child or a medical condition pending court appearances; nine were juveniles transferred to a refugee resettlement agency; and eight face charges of criminal identity theft.

The circumstances echoed a December 2006 raid on six plants operated by meat processor Swift & Co., now JBS Swift & Co., after which that company reported $53 million in losses. Swift was an even longer-time participant in the record checking system.

The Department of Homeland Security has begun requiring workers who are permanent residents or noncitizens to present photo IDs that can be compared with their images in federal records. But E-Verify lacks a similar check for people posing as citizens. As a result, the system is feeding a black market for selling Social Security numbers, some of them stolen, business owners contend.

“I think the general public thinks it’s an answer-all to this whole illegal-worker-identity theft problem, and it’s not,” Bernie Kohl Jr., owner of Angelica Nurseries in Kennedyville, Md., told The Post.

Mr. Kohl said E-Verify also creates a temptation for employers to discriminate against legal immigrants in hiring because they don’t want to hassle with trying to sort out the system’s mistakes.

Stewart Baker, assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, tells the Post the government is busy fixing E-Verify’s flaws as it prepares to expand the initiative. (Bush officials in early June proposed to triple the number of companies in the program, mandating participation by 169,000 federal contractors and requiring them for the first time to verify the eligibility of existing employees, not just new hires.)

About 4.1 percent of 435 million Social Security records used by E-Verify — 17.8 million records — contain errors, the agency’s Office of Inspector General stated in June 2007. The system wrongly rejected foreign-born U.S. citizens 9.8 percent of the time in the first half of 2007, and it erroneously flagged noncitizens who had been authorized to work 1.4 percent of the time, a study found.

But federal officials insist E-Verify is ready to roll. In early 2007, 94.2 percent of workers were automatically verified. Another half-percent were mistakenly rejected, but workers eventually were able to clear up the problem, usually within two days. The remaining 5.3 percent of workers walked away, which officials interpreted as meaning they were illegal.

Congress still must decide whether to extend E-Verify beyond November. The purpose of the program has merit, but lawmakers should fund it only if it really works — and they should stop passing the costs on to employers, who have enough trouble creating new jobs and still making ends meet.

One possibility is to bill the nations whose citizens are rejected by the scans — and who benefit from their ill-gotten “remittances” — on a pro-rated basis. When they refuse to pay, seize the amounts due out of their assets in this country.

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