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ATLANTA -- For a migrant who journeys to the South to work in the chicken factories, it does not take long to figure out how to land a job -- even without legal status to work in the United States.

Arriving in Mississippi last year, Beatriz, a 22-year-old Guatemalan, quickly learned all she had to do was buy fraudulent documents and apply at one of the many plants where cursory reviews and few questions are the norm.

So she paid a man $1,500 for a fake Social Security card, a matching identification card with her photo and a new name: Brandy.

Within days, she had a job cutting and weighing chicken at Pearl River Foods in the town of Carthage.

"It's not a secret. Almost everyone works with another name," she said. "All they do is verify your Social Security number and your ID with another name and you're good."

One of 680 workers rounded up this month by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in raids at poultry plants across Mississippi, Beatriz spoke on condition that she be identified only by her middle name because she was admitting to a crime and did not want to hurt her immigration case.

The operation exposed the poultry industry's widespread use of unauthorized workers despite the federal system known as E-Verify, which was unveiled more than a decade ago to ensure that potential hires are legally eligible to work in the United States.

Mississippi requires all private employers to use E-Verify, but the law is not followed uniformly. A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that fewer than half the people hired in the state in recent years were screened.

And even when employers use the system, it has a major weakness well known to those who work in the chicken factories: It does not detect when a job applicant is using somebody else's identity.

"It would be hard to design a more ineffective system than E-Verify," said Alex Nowrasteh, a director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Washington. "The system only checks the documents that you give it. It doesn't check the worker. That's the fatal flaw."

Some workers without legal status borrow the identities of friends. Others pay for the stolen identification of unknowing or dead citizens. Meanwhile, some companies use E-Verify improperly, and unscrupulous ones can accept shady documents while maintaining that they use the system.

No executives or managers at the companies targeted in the Mississippi raids -- Koch Foods, Peco Foods, PH Food, A&B and Pearl River Foods -- have been charged.

But in affidavits, federal immigration officials said they had probable cause to believe that for years all five companies had knowingly hired people in the country illegally.

A Guatemalan woman, Ana Santizo-Tapia, told immigration officials in May that when she initially applied for a job at Koch Foods, a personnel employee said her papers were not "good" and rejected her application. So she became Maria Gomez, paying $950 for a fake birth certificate, Social Security card and photo identification.

Three weeks later, the affidavit says, the same Koch employee gave her the job.

Santizo-Tapia told authorities that a supervisor at the Koch plant asked her whether she wore an electronic-monitoring ankle bracelet, as is common among people who have been caught without papers and are awaiting immigration court proceedings.

When she said she did, the supervisor told her she needed to keep it charged. He added that "he knew 'they' were poor and came to the United States to work."

Jim Gilliland, a spokesman for Koch Foods, said the company had vigilantly complied with E-Verify, using it to disqualify about 400 people for work since 2016.

The problem, he said, is not just that the system fails to detect fraud, but that there's also a tension between immigration laws on verifying employment eligibility and federal laws on national origin discrimination.

"If we request more documents than we're supposed to or refuse to hire a worker on the basis that the worker comes from another country, we're at liability of the over-documentation clause that is part of federal discrimination law," Gilliland said. "We can't do that. We have to make a judgment call, and the judgment call is the E-Verify system."

An ankle monitor device on a prospective employee, he said, was not a reason to deny employment.

"If you see something that creates suspicion or that you think might be questionable and respond to that after the person has submitted two forms of identification that clearly authorize them for employment, that would constitute discrimination," he said. "That's just the way it is."

For decades, federal law did not bar the hiring of people in the country without legal documents.

The first penalties for employers were established in 1986 as part of an amnesty and immigration overhaul law signed by President Ronald Reagan. As a concession to powerful business lobbies, fines were low and it was difficult to prosecute employers because the law required the government to show that they had "knowingly employed" people who were in the country illegally.

E-Verify was formally underway in 2007 after a decade-long pilot program.

It takes the names, Social Security numbers and other identifying information prospective hires submit to employers and checks that information against records from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security. An answer comes back within 24 hours.

But though all federal contractors are required to use E-Verify, only nine states require it for most or all private employers. And a 2012 audit commissioned by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services found that people in the country illegally routinely evaded it.

Business on 08/28/2019

Print Headline: Flawed E-Verify system checks papers, not workers

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