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Homeland Security offers tool to curb errors in work eligibility

Workers will have a new electronic means to help prevent the government from mislabeling them as ineligible for U.S. employment, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced on Monday.

"Beginning today, for the first time, individuals in five states and the District of Columbia will be able to check their own employment eligibility status before seeking a job," Napolitano said at a news conference announcing the pilot program. "This new service is voluntary, is fast, is free and, importantly, is secure."

Officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Homeland Security Department, hope the program will cut back on the number of documented workers whose status is wrongly questioned because of database errors in the E-Verify work eligibility system during the hiring process.

The Self Check program provides "clear instructions in both English and Spanish on how the user can correct his or her records," USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said at the press conference.

Despite its limited availability, USCIS sees the program expanding soon. The agency plans to implement the program nationwide by the end of 2012, but a USCIS fact sheet warned that implementation plans were contingent on "personnel and budgetary" resources. USCIS expects about 1 million people will self-query their employment eligibility status in the next year, and that figure could reach up to 8 million checks per year once the program is available nationwide.

The announcement comes as the E-Verify system is receiving renewed attention on Capitol Hill. Some immigration experts think the House will vote to mandate nationwide implementation this year, NextGov reported in February, but warned at the time that USCIS might not be up to the task.

Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has congressional responsibility for the 14-year-old voluntary E-Verify program that is used to varying degrees in different states, welcomed the new initiative.

"With the unemployment rate around 9 percent for 22 months and 7 million illegal immigrants working in the U.S.," Smith said, "we should continue to build on the successes of E-Verify."

The program will not be a cure-all for errant non-confirmations, a situation that can lead an employer to fire an employee who is work-authorized, said Tyler Moran, policy director at the National Immigration Law Center.

USCIS acknowledged the program has limitations: "If I Self Check myself successfully, and then six months from now I am run through E-Verify," said Michael Mayhew, special operations chief of the Verification Division at USCIS, "I can still get a mismatch if my status has changed, if I've changed my name, if my employer inputs a typo."

Still, Self Check could become an important tool for the E-Verify system, said Marc Rosenblum, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. He warned, however, that the program does not address the E-Verify program's most pressing problem. "We know that the system is massively vulnerable to identity theft right now," he said. "Over half of unauthorized immigrants who are submitted to E-Verify are wrongly confirmed [as work eligible], mostly as a result of identity fraud."

Rosenblum said USCIS should allow users to lock their E-Verify account after confirming its accuracy, and said that a functioning Self Check feature in the future will make implementing a locking feature easier. The Self Check program makes sure that users are who they say they are through a third-party security quiz based on a credit report and other personal data.

"The vast majority of the work that needs to be done for locking," Rosenblum said, "is accomplished if you can get Self Check working."

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