Mandatory E-Verify Bill Advances As Critics Fight Back with New Ads

If Texas Rep. Lamar Smith has his way, a deeply flawed immigrant screening system will become mandatory for every employer in the nation.

By Julianne Hing Sep 30, 2011

"My name is Reynaldo Arevalo. I’m a citizen of this country and I’ve worked as a mushroom picker for more than 20 years."

"We are human beings and we should be treated as such."

These are lines from an ad that will air on Spanish-language radio in key California districts as immigrant rights and labor groups fight back against a House Bill that seeks to make it mandatory for every employer in the country to check their employees’ work eligibility with an electronic system called E-Verify. H.R. 2885, the Legal Workforce Act, passed the House Judiciary Committee last week on a party line vote. House Republicans are reportedly nailing down a date for a floor vote.

"Este plan me trata a mí y a mis compañeros como si fuéramos desechables," the man tells listeners. "This plan treats me and my co-workers like we’re disposable."

Latino civil rights groups say the bill could further damage an already struggling U.S. economy.

"The bill would endanger the jobs of millions of Latinos–including U.S. citizens wrongly flagged by the government’s database–and import hundreds of thousands of new guest workers to replace them," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigration reform advocacy group America’s Voice. "It would push more jobs and workers into the underground economy, grow the deficit, and expand red tape and costs for small businesses."

Sharry and leaders from national labor union SEIU said Latinos in Sacramento, Santa Barbara and San Gabriel Valley, where the congressional representatives have backed the bill and where the ads will air, need to know this. In addition to the radio spots, readers of "La Opinion," the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, will find an ad in their paper this week with a similar message.

H.R. 2885’s author, hardline immigration restrictionist Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, has marketed the Legal Workforce Act as a jobs bill, arguing that it would root out undocumented workers and allow unemployed, authorized workers to replace them. The bill would require employers to screen any potential hire through the Internet-based work authorization program before employees can start work.

"E-Verify is a successful tool for employers looking to hire a legal workforce," Smith wrote in an op-ed this summer. "It also helps reduce the jobs magnet that encourages illegal immigration."

Critics of the system contend that Smith is wrong on both counts.

The system has faced a barrage of criticism over the years for being deeply flawed in its design and implementation. Not only does the system often erroneously flag authorized workers, especially naturalized citizens, it also has a difficult time identifying fraud, such as when undocumented immigrants use false papers to get hired.

Critics of E-Verify have pointed out that far from being a jobs creator, it would likely result in American workers wrongfully losing their jobs. Estimates from government audits of E-Verify programs already in place suggest that if the system were to be expanded nationwide, some 770,000 Americans would lose their jobs because the system would mistakenly identify them as being potentially unauthorized to work. In Los Angeles County, for instance, a 2009 audit found that 95 percent of county employees flagged as being potentially unauthorized to work actually had the legal right to work in the country.

"The chairman calls this our best job bill," California Rep. Zoe Lofgren said during last week’s markup. "That is only if your goal is to make it harder for American workers to get back to work."

Some immigrant rights advocates outside the Beltway say criticizing the design flaws of E-Verify merely begs for the creation of a stronger and more accurate employee verification system when the problem is much deeper than anything that can be addressed via such employer sanction schemes.

"People in this country have to acknowledge the root causes of why people are forced to migrate to the U.S. to find work in the first place, and that has to do with the global economic policies which U.S. corporations benefit from," said Renee Saucedo, the community empowerment coordinator at La Raza Centro Legal in San Francisco. Saucedo organizes and advocates for day laborers.

Saucedo, who called employer sanctions like E-Verify "immoral," added that in her experience it was workers who felt the brunt of laws meant to rein in employers. Employer sanctions provisions tend to drive hiring further underground and make undocumented workers more vulnerable to exploitation, thus pushing the wage floor down for everyone.

"This application of the E-Verify system has proven to destroy the functionality of the employment structure," said Mike Garcia, president of SEIU United Service Workers West. "It’s a horrible system not based on any kind of reality."

As long as economic conditions in people’s home countries remain dire enough that people are willing to risk their lives and separate themselves from their loved ones to come to the U.S. to work, they will," Saucedo said. "It doesn’t matter how much they criminalize immigrants’ ability to work, people are going to continue to come."

More than that, labor and business groups both argue, the reality of the U.S. economy is that it heavily relies on undocumented labor. So much so that the business community and the agricultural industry in particular have spoken up in opposition to the law. It’s not just lefty groups that are paying for ads to fight H.R. 2885.

An unlikely crew of immigrant rights, labor, business and even tea party groups are now aligned in their opposition to the bill. Whether or not their efforts will be enough for the Republican-controlled House is yet to be seen.