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The Legal Workforce Act – The latest debate over E-Verify

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Citing a 9% unemployment rate and the difficulty for many Americans to find work, Rep. Smith noted “E-Verify is a successful program to help ensure that jobs are reserved for citizens and legal workers.”

On Tuesday, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), proposed the Legal Workforce Act (HR 2164).  The bill would make it mandatory for nearly all businesses in the United States to verify the status of new workers through a government electronic database known as E-Verify.  If it becomes law, employers with more than 1 employee will be required to use the E-Verify system within 2 years while larger employers with over 500 employees will have to start using the system within 1 year.  Currently, US employers are required to use the paper I-9 form to prove that the workers they hired are legally permitted to work in the United States.  The bill does create an exemption in the agricultural sector by giving agricultural employers a three year window to check the eligibility of their new hires.  Currently, E-Verify is used on a voluntary basis by 250,000 employers but mandatory for all federal contractors and subcontractors.

Rep. Smith’s justification for the bill was primarily economic.  Citing a 9% unemployment rate and the difficulty for many Americans to find work, Smith noted “E-Verify is a successful program to help ensure that jobs are reserved for citizens and legal workers.”  Smith went on to state, “There is no other legislation that can be enacted that will create more jobs for American workers.”

Ali Hoorani of the National Immigration Forum issued a swift criticism of Rep. Smith’s new legislation.  According to Hoorani, “Instead of growing jobs, Chairman Smith’s ill-considered proposal will burden businesses with a cumbersome, costly and inaccurate system. It would kill jobs, drive business costs up and wreak havoc on key industries including agriculture, restaurants, hospitality and manufacturing. A vote for E-Verify is a vote for bureaucracy and an estimated $17 billion drain on the U.S. Treasury over a 10-year period.”

Other critics note the several problems of the E-Verify system.  Although proponents of E-Verify claim an over 99% success rate, a study commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security and conducted by the independent research firm Westat noted that E-Verify incorrectly authorized over an 18 month period 54% of workers that otherwise should not have been cleared.  Additionally, in a December 2010 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) also noted that for workers that were incorrectly deemed unauthorized to work, there is a “formidable challenge” in attempting to correct the errors.  This difficulty stems from the fact that the E-Verify system does not have a proper procedure for employees to access which records led to the error.  The Asian American Legal Advocacy Center also noted that the mandatory use of E-Verify could cause up to 770,000 legal workers (including American citizens) to lose their job.

Many also believe that with the 2012 election closely approaching, this was a potentially political move to garner eventual votes.  A study by Pulse Opinion Research noted that 81% of 1,000 Americans randomly polled supported the mandatory use of E-Verify.

This new legislation comes just weeks after the Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law which requires Arizonan employers to use the E-Verify system and face a potential loss of their license if they repeatedly hire illegal immigrants.

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