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Stimulus conference becoming venue for E-Verify battle

Immigration advocates are looking at conference negotiations over the economic recovery package as the main battleground to defeat an effort to require companies benefiting from stimulus spending to verify the legal status of their workers.

The House version of the stimulus bill includes a provision that would prohibit any funding from going to "an entity" that does not use the E-Verify program. The online electronic system checks a worker's immigration status and other information against Homeland Security Department and Social Security Administration databases.

Supporters and opponents of the measure said Tuesday a similar amendment could be offered in the Senate during debate on its stimulus bill this week. It would likely come from Senate Finance ranking member Charles Grassley or Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., although at presstime, their offices said no decisions had been made.

But even if Grassley and Sessions choose not to offer such an amendment, the battle royal over required use of E-Verify will occur in the conference negotiations to resolve whether the House provision survives in the final bill.

Groups that oppose the provision, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Human Resource Initiative for a Legal Workforce, have begun setting their sights on conference proceedings.

"We don't think it's appropriate to have it in that package," said Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, which describes itself as the largest trade association for human-resource professionals. The society is the lead organization with the Human Resource Initiative.

The Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a massive alliance of business and trade groups, sent key senators a letter last week opposing mandatory use of E-Verify. The coalition includes groups from the U.S. Chamber to the Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Chicken Council.

The coalition argued that errors in the E-Verify system could result in the wrongful termination of thousands of workers and slow down economic recovery efforts.

"Businesses will also face significant losses related to administrative costs and operating expenses needed to implement E-Verify," added the letter, which was originally sent in anticipation of an amendment to the bill by Grassley.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent House leaders a letter last week asking them to help ensure the language is not in the final bill. The letter was spearheaded by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman, Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., and the Immigration Task Force Chairman, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. It said such language would have a disproportionate impact on Hispanic communities.

"Since a large portion of the stimulus is concentrated in Hispanic dominated industries, transportation and construction, this provision will have an enormous impact on our community," the letter stated. "Foreign-born American citizens are 30 times more likely than native born workers to be incorrectly identified as ineligible for work."

Groups that support the E-Verify requirement in the stimulus package, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, plan to fight in conference to retain it.

"There should be no controversy about creating jobs to go to legal workers," said FAIR executive director Julie Kirchner. "FAIR is doing everything it can to make sure the language stays in the bill."

"This will really be a test for the [Obama] administration," Kirchner added. "If the administration cannot really support a program that helps employers hire legal workers it seems to me that their immigration policy is pretty hollow."

A Homeland Security spokesman said about 2.5 million queries have been made to E-Verify by employers for fiscal 2009. Out of that, 0.4 percent -- 10,000 workers -- were tagged as a "tentative non-confirmation," which means these employees were told they needed to correct their records.

A Social Security Administration official said a burden could fall on field offices if there is a surge of people needing to correct records. But he said the agency has not done an assessment specifically to determine the impact of a mandatory E-Verify provision.

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