Gov't rewarding firms checking immigrant status

AP News
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Posted: Nov 19, 2009 6:22 PM

The Homeland Security Department will give a seal of approval to businesses volunteering to use an electronic program to check workers' immigration status.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday the public should know which companies are following the law. The problem is, the program known as E-Verify is still under development, and the law does not require employers to use it. They are required to use a paper system.

In addition, some businesses that use E-Verify have been found to have hired undocumented workers who used stolen, fraudulent or borrowed documents.

The department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency announced later Thursday that it plans to audit the hiring records of another 1,000 employers. The audits are based on investigations and intelligence and include some businesses connected to public safety and national security, ICE said.

Dairy farmers in Vermont were among the businesses getting notifications from immigration officials to turn over payroll and hiring records, said Kelly Loftus, Vermont Agency of Agrculture spokeswoman. Some dairy farmers say they use foreign workers because it is hard to find people locally for the work.

About 169,000 of the nation's 7 million employers use E-Verify.

Telling the public who uses E-Verify "will let consumers know which businesses are working hard to follow the law and are committed to protecting employment opportunities," Napolitano said at a meeting with employers about immigration enforcement.

The approval seal Napolitano unveiled says in large letters "I E-Verify," with a waving American flag. Below, in smaller letters, the label says "This business uses E-Verify in its hiring processes to achieve a lawful work force."

Although DHS has been working to shrink the error rate of E-Verify, the program does sometimes flag legal workers as illegal. The program also cannot determine if someone is using bogus documents.

Congress gave DHS $137 million to run E-Verify and authorized it to operate for another three years. Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for DHS' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said that will allow the system to make checks on 65 million employees. As of October, the U.S. had 130.8 million employees who do not work on farms and are not self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

An attempt to make the program permanent was rejected but is likely to be proposed again as part of the Democrats' immigration reform bill.

"There is no doubt that a major part of any reform bill will be to make sure that employers are held accountable for maintaining a legal work force," Napolitano said.

Immigration lawyer Scott Wright of Minneapolis, who attended the meeting, said the E-Verify seal "is grooming the business community and the public to get into the mindset" of what is to come.

Rep. Lamar Smith, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, criticized DHS' enforcement record, saying DHS statistics show a dramatic increase in audits and significant drops in criminal arrests, criminal indictments, criminal convictions and administrative arrests. There has been a 317 percent increase in audits.

"Audits may result in fines, but most companies consider them a cost of doing business," Smith said in a statement.

According to ICE, it has assessed $2.3 million in fines against 61 businesses this year. The total is not final because the businesses can negotiate the fines.

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Associated Press writer Lisa Rathke in Montpelier, Vt. contributed to this report.

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On the Net: Department of Homeland Security: http://www.dhs.gov