Defense

Budget Cuts Hit E-Verify

Migrant workers tend to flowers at a nursery in Salinas, Calif.

Migrant workers tend to flowers at a nursery in Salinas, Calif. // Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP File Photo

Anti-fraud enhancements for a worker identification tool that is considered key to immigration reform might be postponed because of blanket funding cuts that began this month.

If there is any consensus on how to handle the nation's 11 million undocumented aliens, it is that employers should be required to confirm their foreign hires are eligible to work using an accurate E-Verify system. E-Verify is a website that lets organizations voluntarily check employees’ personal information, including Social Security numbers, against federal databases to confirm immigration status. 

Last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials testified at a House hearing that USCIS is developing an E-Verify function this year that will allow employees "to lock their SSNs" so ineligible foreigners cannot mooch off of stolen identities.

But this week, agency officials said that might not happen.

Unlike most USCIS systems, which are funded by immigrants who pay for services, E-Verify is funded by Congress. And Congress earlier this month initiated governmentwide budget cuts known as sequestration to rein in federal spending.

"While USCIS expects to continue processing E-Verify checks from employers, sequestration may require a reduction in some contracts that support E-Verify, thus delaying the deployment of some E-Verify functional enhancements," agency spokesman Chris Bentley said. Other planned enhancements include expanding the capacity of the system, which currently supports 432,000 of the country’s 7.7 million employers.

At a small naturalization ceremony for service members and civilians on Monday, President Obama urged Congress to act on immigration reform, a top second-term priority.

Immigration policy experts say sequestration could slow the path to legalization for undocumented workers, but not by much. For one thing, the amount of E-Verify money lost during a sequester of any length is far smaller than the amount of money needed for augmenting E-Verify to service all U.S. employers. USCIS currently spends about $111 million annually on the system. Also, Congress always has the power to pass new legislation exempting E-Verify funds from sequestration.

Even if “there is, with the sequestration, some slight diminution of the pace at which improvements can be made -- the scaling up that's going to be required to set E-Verify up as a mandatory program is going to be significant," said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the then U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration.

She doubts sequestration in 2013 will have a significant effect on the grand expansion scheme.

"The cost of making it mandatory would be distributed out over the course of several years,” under the president’s plan and most other proposals, said Meissner, now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.  Administration officials declined to comment on the expense of enlarging E-Verify.

Other immigration experts are less optimistic that sequestration will just be a bump in the road. 

According to Kathleen Campbell Walker, an immigration lawyer at Cox Smith, even if the mandate is phased in, insufficient capacity would be a "major problem,” setting back use of the tool.

The number of organizations registered to use E-Verify has multiplied 18 times since the program launched in 2007 with 24,463 participants. Across ideological divides, many businesses, immigrants, Republicans and Democrats say the system's accuracy has improved during that time. 

Nonetheless, critics, such as advocates for the rights of low-income immigrants, argue mandatory E-Verify will harm workers because errors still remain. At the February hearing, representatives from the National Immigration Law Center pointed to government statistics showing that, in 2011, between 46,515 and 274,103 citizens and eligible immigrants encountered a glitch that required they contact a government agency to fix a database mistake -- or risk losing their jobs.

Meanwhile, some Americans opposed to legalizing undocumented workers say the spending cuts won’t affect reforms one way or the other.

If comprehensive immigration reform fails, "it will be because the politics across both the Republican and Democratic platforms could no longer hold,” said Janice Kephart, former counsel on the 9/11 Commission and a national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies. “But it will not be due to sequestration, which is considered a short term choke on budgets, even if the long term ramifications are potentially immense.”

Other analysts agree that reform efforts could run parallel to sequestration.

"If they actually do get immigration reform done, I doubt very seriously that they would allow the sequestration issue to stand in the way of moving it forward," said James Ziglar, also a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner during the George W. Bush administration

Then again, "It's not unprecedented for the Congress to mandate something and then not fund it," he said.

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