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Employer verification bills expose House's deep divisions

The first of several House hearings to consider changes in immigration laws drew a crowd today, a strong sign that passion over the issue remains even though Democratic leaders have not committed to bringing any specific legislation to the floor for a vote. More than 100 people jammed into a hearing by the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, which is considering competing bills that would require employers to verify the citizenship of their workers. No consensus emerged, however, on how best to revise the nation's immigration laws. "I hope our fact-finding today will help the subcommittee and the Congress better understand the challenges and consequences of making employment verification mandatory," said Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Michael McNulty, D-N.Y. House Democratic leaders decided to hold hearings on immigration measures in response to mounting political pressure from conservative lawmakers, who want to crack down on illegal immigrants, and from liberal and Hispanic lawmakers, who want to create a temporary guest-worker program for foreigners.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Today's hearing showed that deep divisions remain over whether employers should be required to use the so-called E-verify system, a program administered by the Homeland Security Department that uses the Social Security Administration's database to verify citizenship. A bill by Rep. Heath Shuler, D-N.C., would mandate that employers use E-verify for all current workers and new hires. Critics argue that E-verify is not ready to be a national program, as only about 65,000 employers out of 6 million nationwide use it on a voluntary basis. Testifying at the hearing, Shuler declared that Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff endorses his approach. After the hearing, Shuler said Chertoff has not endorsed his bill but has publicly stated that E-verify is ready to be a national system.

Shuler faced heavy opposition. McNulty said E-verify is riddled with problems, while Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee ranking member Sam Johnson, R-Texas, has authored a competing bill. Johnson and other subcommittee members held a news conference before the hearing on their bill, which is backed by the Society for Human Resource Management and the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, two industry groups. "I don't think the Shuler bill will make it to the floor," Johnson told reporters. His bill would apply to only newly hired workers, and would use verification systems administered by the states.

Shuler's bill has also come under fire for its costs, as CBO projected it would cost about $2.3 billion per year for 10 years to implement. Shuler said CBO's estimate did not take into account savings that states would get in healthcare, education and prison expenses by deterring illegal immigration. Johnson's bill has not yet been scored by CBO, though he said he expects it will be. Johnson said he believes Congress will pass some immigration measures this year, but not comprehensive legislation that creates a guest-worker program. He noted that congressional authorization for E-verify expires in November, creating the incentive for Congress to pass a new law requiring employers to verify the citizenship of workers.

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