Apr. 11, 2006 – While the immigration debate simmering on Capitol Hill is reported to only concern the rights of immigrants, a little-publicized provision would place the burden of proving work eligibility on citizens and non-citizens alike.
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The immigration-reform bill currently under consideration in the US Senate and the House of Representativesâ€™ version passed last year both include provisions establishing an Electronic Employment Verification System (EVS). The system, presently in pilot testing, is purportedly designed to help employers verify whether the workers they hire are authorized to work in the United States.
But civil libertarians say that flaws in the system would leave authorized workers â€“ both US- and foreign-born â€“ vulnerable to identify theft. They are also concerned about the systemâ€™s cost, and warn that inaccuracies in government databases could lead to the wrongful firing or rejection of workers.
"This kind of system would, for the first time in American history, give the government the power to deny any willing worker, â€“ citizen or not â€“ the ability to obtain a job," said Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement about the proposed bills last year.
"No willing worker should be forced to obtain the Department of Homeland Securityâ€™s permission to work," he continued, "especially when that system will cause millions of work-eligible American citizens and lawful residents to be wrongly delayed or prevented from working and earning a living."
Currently, employers must only show the government that they viewed employeesâ€™ identification documents and that they looked authentic.
Employers participating in the EVS pilot program, now operating in a few thousand workplaces nationwide, submit employee information to the government, which then checks it against government databases. The proposals in Congress would expand the program, which is currently voluntary, to all employers in the next five years.
The governmentâ€™s own audits have raised concerns over the systemâ€™s capacity, accuracy, and potential to invite workplace discrimination.
In a report on the pilot program, the Government Accountability Office last year stated, "Current weaknesses in the program â€“ such as the inability of the program to detect identity fraud, DHS delays in entering data into its databases, and some employer noncompliance with pilot program requirements could, if not addressed â€“ have a significant impact on the programâ€™s success."
Furthermore, wrote GAO investigators, "US Citizenship and Immigration Services officials stated that the current Basic Pilot Program may not be able to complete timely verifications if the number of employers using the program significantly increased."
Under the proposed legislation, employees whose work authorization could cannot be verified by government databases, would have ten business days to appeal and try to correct inaccurate data. During that time, employers would be prohibited from firing them based on work eligibility.
The GAO, however, reported that "30 percent of the employers surveyed for the evaluation reported restricting work assignments" during the appeals process, although the pilot program prohibits this. GAO also found that some employers were illegally using the program to screen job applications before offering them positions.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which administers the system, also acknowledges problems with data accuracy as well as the potential for discrimination.
CISâ€™s own report to Congress in June 2004 notes that the "most seriousâ€¦ deficiency" in the pilot program has been "tentative nonconfirmation" responses issued for employees who should in fact have been fully authorized to work. "Employers, employees and the federal government incurred costs in the process of resolving these erroneous findings," the report conceded. "Since foreign-born employees were more likely to receive erroneous [rejections] than were US-born employees, these accuracy problems were also a source of unintentional discrimination against foreign-born employees."
The agency said it had taken numerous steps to increase the accuracy of its databases, but no independent evaluation has been performed since.
Additionally, governmental evaluations of the program have not addressed privacy concerns, and the proposed legislation does nothing to address privacy safeguards.
"The new program would likely use an Internet-based system to check the names and Social Security numbers of all employeesâ€¦ against two government agenciesâ€™ databases," wrote the ACLU in a press statement about the EVS program, projecting based on the system used in the pilot program. The group argued that the data "provides a ripe target for identity thieves."
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the groupâ€™s Washington Legislative Office, said: "Immigration reform should not become the means to undermine the Constitution, nor should it place undue burdens on the American worker. â€¦We can reform our immigration laws without compromising our freedoms and privacy."