An electronic system for verifying a worker’s legal status and enforcing the laws must be part of any immigration overhaul, a House committee hearing on Wednesday indicated.
Congressmen on both sides of the aisle expressed their support for the verification system, known as E-Verify, while witnesses testified to the system’s accuracy and benefits at a hearing late Wednesday afternoon held by the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
"E-Verify is not the entire solution, but it is a critical part of the enforcement solution," Judicial Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) said at the beginning of the hearing.
"Comprehensive immigration reform—we can’t do it without E-Verify," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.) during the questioning.
Momentum and support for immigration reform has grown since the November election. A bipartisan group of eight senators introduced an immigration overhaul plan earlier this year, followed quickly by a competing plan from the president.
The E-Verify system was first introduced in 1997. It is currently voluntary for most employers, although some states require some employers to use it.
Utah, for example, requires private employers with 15 or more employees to use the federal E-Verify system.
Christopher Gamvroulas, a homebuilder in Utah who testified on behalf of the National Association of Home Builders, called E-Verify an "efficient, effective system" and said that it is easy to use.
He said his company, Ivory Homes, has processed 320 employees through the E-Verify system since 2010 and only four of those came back with a "tentative non-confirmation" (TNC) result, meaning the government databases did not indicate they were eligible to work. None of the four contested the result, Gamvroulas said.
He also noted that the presence of the E-Verify system in Utah could be causing some illegal immigrants to self-police and not apply for jobs where their status will be checked.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D., Calif.) , subcommittee ranking member, raised the issue of the E-Verify system’s accuracy in her opening remarks, as did Emily Tulli, who testified for the National Immigration Law Center.
Soraya Correa, an associate director in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, testified that the system has an accuracy rate of 99.7 percent for legal workers and an accuracy rate of 94 percent for unauthorized workers.
Both the witnesses and congressmen brought up other potential problems with the E-Verify system.
Gamvroulas said the lag time between beginning the process and receiving a final non-confirmation (FNC) can cause businesses to lose resources they have invested in a potential employee. Tulli argued that they system makes all workers "more vulnerable in the workplace."
Tulli argued that employers are misusing the system by pre-screening applicants, which is illegal. There are no penalties for employees who misuse E-verify, she said.
Correa noted that her office refers cases to the Department of Justice.
Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R., SC) questioned how Tulli could know that businesses are breaking the law by pre-screening applicants.
Gamvroulas also noted that the E-Verify system only verifies the accuracy of the information that a worker supplies, exposing the system to fraud through identity theft.
Lofgren argued that any mandatory implementation must be part of a broader immigration system reform.
"Otherwise, we’re just finding out how dysfunctional [the system] really is," she said.
Both Lofgren and Randel Johnson, a senior vice president for the Chamber of Commerce, said that the agricultural sector heavily relies on illegal workers. Simply imposing E-Verify on agriculture businesses without broader reforms would cripple the industry, they said.
Johnson noted that the Chamber of Commerce now supports the mandatory expansion of E-Verify, even though the Chamber opposed it in the past. Improvements in the system assuaged their concerns.
Tulli was the only witness who refused to endorse the E-Verify system. She insisted that the E-Verify system must be part of a broader legalization regime, and even then conditioned any approval of the system on the specifics of an immigration reform package.
Looming over the hearing was the 1986 immigration amnesty.
"We thought, or the people who passed it at the time thought, that they were taking care of this problem, but because they did not have a good enforcement mechanism, and the laws that were put on the books were indeed not enforced, we have a much greater problem today," Goodlatte said.
"The American people and the members of Congress have to feel the certainty that we’re going to prevent the future flow of illegal immigration," Rep. Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) said after the hearing. "And you can only do that by having an E-Verify system, by having border enforcement and by having interior enforcement."