ICE Starts Immigration Audit of 1,000 Firms as GOP Pushes E-Verify

As Obama expands employer audits, GOP pushes growth of a database that's wrongly identified tens of thousands of workers as undocumented.

By Julianne Hing Feb 18, 2011

Chipotle was only the beginning. The federal government is expanding its inquiry into 1,000 businesses suspected of employing people who are undocumented, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

This is the largest such audit of employers since a similar operation in 2009. Then, public safety and national security businesses were targeted. The Journal reports that this time, regional food chains are among those getting scrutinized.

Since January of 2009, employers from 3,580 companies have had their employees’ I-9 forms examined against Social Security Administration, State Department and Homeland Security databases to verify worker eligibility, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Kelly Nantel, Bloomberg reported. Those investigations led to $54 million in fines.

Gone are the days of the traumatizing and high-profile workplace raids of the Bush era. Consider these the Obama administration’s newer, quieter and more thorough version, in which employers hand over their files and every potential undocumented immigrant worker gets fired, instead of just the ones who happen to be working a shift when ICE agents show up.

The administration’s ramped up investigations come amid renewed talk in Congress of expanding the online federal employer database E-verify to make it mandatory for all U.S. businesses. Currently the program is optional, though all federal contractors must use it and some states have made it mandatory, too.

The charge is being led by GOP Reps. Lamar Smith, Elton Gallegly and Steve King, who are pushing to expand a crackdown on immigrant workers under the guise of job protections in tough economic times.

"With 26 million Americans unemployed or underemployed, expanding E-Verify would help open up jobs that they need," said Lamar Smith at a House Immigration Policy and Enforcement Subcommittee hearing on the topic last week.

Critics of E-Verify contend that even with recent improvements the system is laughably flawed. A new report put out by USCIS showed that it’s not uncommon for the system to flag a worker who later turns out to be authorized to work in the country. The rate of these so-called TNCs, or Tentative Nonconfirmations, has gone down in recent years, but it remains a serious problem in the system.

Amy Peck from Immigration Daily broke down this system flaw and the many other problems USCIS found with E-Verify in a recent article. "The impact of erroneous name-related TNCs cannot be ignored. According to USCIS, of 22,512 TNCs resulting from name mismatches in fiscal year 2009, approximately 76 percent, or 17,098, were for citizens, and approximately 24 percent, or 5,414, were for noncitizens," Peck wrote. Peck estimates that if E-Verify were made mandatory for newly hired employees nationwide, about 164,000 U.S. citizens and non-citizens would get wrongly tangled up in immigration proceedings because of the system’s flaws. The system is also unable to accurately spot identity theft or fraud, among myriad other problems. Civil rights groups contend that E-Verify would just add another dysfunctional system to an already broken bureaucracy, and is not a viable job-creation strategy. E-Verify’s many structural problems could result in U.S. citizens actually losing their jobs, the Immigration Policy Center contends.

Labor groups have joined with immigrant rights groups to try to stop the implementation of E-Verify nationwide. They say that the attack on immigrants can’t be gussied up as a jobs issue.

"Consider that members of the immigration subcommittee now purport to use enforcement as a way to secure American jobs," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, on a press call recently. "They are merely interested only in pushing a mass deportation agenda."

"[Gallegly, Smith and King] have consistently voted against Wall Street reforms and foreclosure reform, issues that matter tremendously to workers in today’s economy," said Eliseo Medina, International Treasury Secretary for SEIU. "And now these anti-worker politicians would have us believe that they are promoting the same in order to protect American workers?"

"Making E-Verify mandatory outside of broader reform of our immigration system undermines American jobs and will ultimately impose new burdens on our economy, workers, and businesses," wrote National Immigration Law Center’s policy director, Tyler Moran, in testimony submitted to Congress.

In the meantime, the government is already combing through employers’ records to investigate the immigration status of thousands of employees.