Panelists reiterate concerns about possible E-Verify expansion

Citizenship bureau and SSA wouldn't be equipped to handle it if Congress required employers nationwide to use the system for checking workers' eligibility, policy analysts say.

An electronic system to check workers' immigration status is not ready for nationwide mandatory implementation, policy analysts familiar with the Homeland Security Department program said during a briefing at the Capitol on Thursday.

The briefing came as Congress discusses whether to expand the program -- known as E-Verify -- outside of a broader package of immigration reforms. During a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he hoped Congress would require more workplaces to use the system. Currently, E-Verify is optional for most employers with some exceptions, including federal contractors.

Tyler Moran, policy director at the National Immigration Law Center, said during the briefing she thought the House likely would pass a bill mandating nationwide use of E-Verify this year.

If the electronic workplace authorization program is expanded nationally, then both DHS' U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau and the Social Security Administration would have to significantly ramp up their ability to correct inaccurate personal data, said Lynden Melmed, former chief counsel of USCIS.

"It will not only be a resource issue," Melmed said. "It will also be a mind-set change to get both of those departments committed to facilitating a quick process" for people to fix inaccurate data.

When asked how USCIS would be affected by an expansion of the E-Verify program, spokesman Christopher Bentley said the agency had the technical systems in place to make it feasible, but added, "making E-Verify a mandatory program would hinge on the implementation timeline and how that timeline would impact personnel and other resources."

Social Security would be able to handle more E-Verify requests so long as Homeland Security continues reimbursing it for the transactions, SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle said. But response time would gradually get slower with a higher volume of requests, and Homeland Security might need to invest in additional infrastructure capacity at SSA, he said. An expansion also would increase the workload of front-line Social Security employees, placing "additional strain on our already limited resources," Hinkle noted.

Thursday's panelists also expressed concern over the program's effectiveness, noting it remains vulnerable to misuse and identity fraud.

"It's just not that beneficial [to employers]," Melmed said. "You could do everything right as an employer and end up with a workforce that is still undocumented." He added the federal government could still audit and raid employers who use the workforce authentication system.

The concerns expressed on Thursday echo some of the issues Richard Stana, director of homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office, raised during the House Judiciary Committee hearing last week. Stana said the onerous process of resolving inaccuracies in Homeland Security or Social Security databases is a significant problem for the system and its inability to detect fraud remains an issue.

Stana also warned during his testimony that neither USCIS nor Social Security can accurately estimate the price tag of expanding the program nationwide, leaving it vulnerable to cost overruns.

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