WASHINGTON - If Congress passes a broad immigration bill that is set for debate in the Senate beginning this week, both of Arkansas’ U.S. senators hope it will include an Internet-based system to screen workers at job sites.
Businesses have used the system, known as E-Verify, voluntarily for more than a decade. Some Arkansas employers, including Tyson Foods Inc. and the University of Arkansas, use it to screen prospective employees. But efforts to make it a national requirement have failed. Critics said mandating use of the system would be a government intrusion on private individuals, and they have slammed it as error-prone.
“Occasionally, you’ll have a little glitch, where it makes a mistake,” said Sen. John Boozman, a Republican, “but for the most part it’s been successful.”
Most employers aren’t equipped to spot forged documents and need the government’s help to make such a determination, Boozman said.
“We need a system where the employers aren’t the immigration agents,” he said.
Boozman and Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, said they are not concerned about the transmission of personal information on the Internet.
“There are plenty of safeguards in place,” Pryor said.
E-Verify is an Internet system that links databases run by the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security that allow employers to check on whether the information included on a job applicant’s I-9 form is accurate. The databases allow employers to verify whether documents - such as a permanent resident card, a U.S. passport or a visa - are filed under a job applicant’s names.
Since 1997, the system has been used on a voluntary, smaller-scale basis.
Under the legislation that is pending in the Senate, the system would create a photo database of state driver’s licenses to allow “biometric” identification of job applicants. Biometric identification uses physical features, such as a fingerprint or a photo.
Companies with more than 5,000 employees would be required to use the system within two years; the rest would be required to implement it within five years.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 423,000 employers used the system last year, up from 24,000 in 2007.
During 2012, the employers used the system 21.1 million times. Of those applicants, the system flagged as ineligible 0.26 percent of people who were eligible to work, according to the agency.
That’s an improvement over the error rate in 2007, when 0.5 percent of people eligible to work weren’t immediately confirmed.
“Originally the system was buggy,” Pryor said. “Everyone says it’s a good system [now].”
David Bier, policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington advocacy group, said that with 60 million new hires a year, even a 0.26 percent error rate means that about 180,000 people will be improperly blocked - at least temporarily - from getting on payrolls.
If the system were rolled out nationally, Bier said, it would be, in essence, an electronic national identification card.
“This system will ultimately end up with a biometric profile for each American that can easily be accessed by any smart phone,” he said. “It can be used to monitor or restrict access to anything. It’s initially benign surveillance, but it will be used for other purposes.”
Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said it is hard for a person to clear his name once he has been wrongly flagged. Often, the system blocks a person because the spelling of his name isn’t exactly consistent in each of the required documents or there are clerical errors.
“The errors tend to skew toward people with foreign names, which can lead to a discriminatory outcome,” he said. “Employers may say ‘Let’s just go with a person with an ordinary-sounding name’” in order to reduce the number of applicants the system flags.
Some warn that a Web based system would drive businesses to hire more illegal workers.
A 2008 Congressional Budget Office report predicted that requiring E-Verify nationally would reduce federal tax revenue by $17.3 billion between 2009 and 2018. Rather than use the system to process applicants, the budget office suggested that more illegal workers would be paid under the table.
“The decrease largely reflects the judgment that mandatory verification … would result in an increase in the number of undocumented workers being paid outside the tax system,” the report said.
Until recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobbying group, opposed an E-Verify mandate.
The system, the group said, was “unworkable, burdensome or unreliable.”
In a May letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the group said it had “reassessed” its position because of improvements in technology.
“We now accept that a uniform national policy expanding the use of E-Verify is integral to immigration reform,” the group said.
Its support of E-Verify is contingent on the government shielding companies that use the system from liability if they have made “good faith” efforts to use E-Verify properly, it said.
Tyson Foods has used the system since 1998.
The Springdale-based poultry giant has historically used a large number of foreign workers.
“It’s a great tool to use,” said Mark Gordon, the director of the company’s equal employment opportunity administration.
The inclusion of a driver’s license photo and a “lock” to prevent multiple people from using the same Social Security number would improve the system, Gordon said.
Those changes are needed, he said, to cure E-Verify’s biggest problem.
“It doesn’t identify impostors” who use other people’s documents, he said. “That’s what E-Verify can’t catch.”