Watchdog notes improvements in accuracy of employment verification system

Report comes as the House Judiciary Committee prepares for a hearing on how the program could be enhanced, and possibly expanded.

The Homeland Security Department's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau has taken significant steps to improve the accuracy and efficiency of an electronic system to check workers' employment eligibility, but several issues remain, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The report (GAO-11-146), released on Tuesday, comes as the House Judiciary Committee gears up for a February hearing on how E-Verify could be enhanced, and possibly expanded. One proposal mentioned by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the committee, would give companies financial incentives to participate in the program, and legal protection if it turns out they hired an unauthorized employee.

"While ... [GAO] acknowledges some areas for refinement, such as guarding against identity theft, the report reaffirms what we already know about E-Verify: It is a very successful program," Smith said in a statement.

GAO found USCIS had boosted the system's accuracy by expanding the number of databases it consulted to determine a hire's status and by establishing new quality control procedures. Those procedures include making employers double-check information for employees found unauthorized to work United States, and allowing E-Verify to automatically correct clerical errors such as dates in the European format.

The improvements to the system mean that more eligible workers are being approved immediately. During fiscal 2009, E-Verify immediately confirmed nearly 97.5 percent of 8.2 million new hires entered into the system. Another 0.3 percent successfully contested their "tentative nonconfirmation" status. By contrast, E-Verify approved 92 percent of new employees immediately when GAO last audited the system in fiscal 2006 through the second quarter of fiscal 2007.

Additionally, USCIS has taken more precautions to protect employees' personal information, GAO found. But despite these improvements, "E-Verify remains vulnerable to identity theft and employer fraud," auditors cautioned.

Moreover, when Homeland Security Department databases contained incorrect information on an employee, there was no easy way to fix the errors. For example, employees relied on tools such as Privacy Act requests to identify the source of the mistake, a process that took an average of 104 days in fiscal 2009.

GAO noted that employees who filed their name inconsistently on government forms -- often foreign-born people -- were more likely to have their status tentatively nonconfirmed. The report noted nonconfirmations gave the "appearance of discrimination." Homeland Security could minimize the problem and improve E-Verify's data by notifying employees of the importance of "consistently recording their names on documentation," GAO concluded.

Auditors warned that neither Homeland Security nor the Social Security Administration had adequately prepared for the possible expansion of the E-Verify program, which is optional for most employers, with some exceptions such as federal contractors. While both agencies had addressed "key practices for effectively managing E-Verify system capacity and availability and for coordinating with each other in operating E-Verify," the report said neither had taken into account all the possible additional costs associated with massive growth of the program.

Homeland Security and SSA officials "generally agreed with most of GAO's recommendations," the report noted. Social Security officials contested the auditors' conclusion that SSA had failed to adequately account for "risks associated with its workload costs."

USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas said he was encouraged by the report, along with high overall customer satisfaction scores in response to a survey DHS commissioned. "While we are pleased with the program's successes, we remain committed to continually improving E-Verify and enhancing this tool's effectiveness for both workers and employers," Mayorkas said in response to GAO.

The E-verify program is authorized until September 2012. At least 243,000 employers now use it, and they ran more than 16 million queries in fiscal 2010, according to USCIS.

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