WASHINGTON • Requiring employers across the nation to use E-Verify to check workers’ citizenship would carve out jobs for unemployed Americans by keeping illegal immigrants out of the job market, backers said Wednesday.
But opponents of the Legal Workforce Act told a House committee that making E-Verify a national employment law would cost billions to enforce, damage small businesses and farms, and just drive employers to pay workers under the table.
“Just because you say it’s mandatory does not mean that it is mandatory,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., an opponent of the proposed requirement. “This is a Band-Aid over a bigger problem.”
The bill heard Wednesday by a House Judiciary subcommittee would do nationally what Arizona has required of employers for several years — make them use the federal E-Verify database to make sure that employees and prospective employees are allowed to work here.
Arizona is one of a handful of states that currently require all employers, public and private, to use the system. The state’s law was upheld by the Supreme Court just a few weeks ago.
Opponents testified that the Arizona law is easily evaded by employers and has cost the state income taxes by forcing employment underground. Doing the same on the national level would be devastating to the U.S. economy, they said.
But the bill’s sponsors argued that a national measure would prevent illegal workers from avoiding the law by relocating to different states and changing employers.
“They (illegal immigrants) go across the street and they work somewhere else,” said Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., a co-sponsor of the bill.
The bill gives agricultural and small businesses an extended period to verify the legal status of their employees and it provides protections against unwarranted fines for employers who use E-Verify. It also calls for the creation of a telephone and online component to improve the efficiency of the system nationwide.
Even without the protections for farms, the bill would have little impact on agriculture in the United States, said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. King, who comes from a largely agricultural district, said American innovation will offset any changes that occur in the workforce due to the proposed bill.
“America is not going to go hungry if we enforce the rule of law,” King said.
Opponents have argued that the current system is broken and that what’s needed is comprehensive immigration reform, not fixes like this. They also pointed to what they see as the failures in Arizona’s law.
Since the state law was enacted in 2008, it led to a 13 percent reduction in income taxes as illegal immigrants were forced off of recorded payrolls, according to the National Immigration Law Center.
More than half of illegal immigrants run through the system now are not detected because some Arizona employers have coached them on ways to avoid being found.
“This will not create jobs ... half of the employers in Arizona are not even using the system,” said Tyler Morgan, a policy director for the immigration center, in testimony to the committee. “Fifty-four percent of the illegal aliens are put through without the system knowing.”
The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry says it believes a mandated E-Verify system has been successful because of high enrollment and because of protections against prosecution for employers who are using the program in good faith.
But the chamber said some small businesses in the state have had trouble with E-verify because they may not have the resources to comply and do not want to add more bureaucracy to their operations.
“I think that you have smaller businesses that are not hiring, and the economic climate is not a white-hot ball of hiring,” said Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the state chamber. “Perhaps as hiring picks up you will see new enrollment.”
He said the chamber is seeing levels of identity theft in the state with E-Verify because there are no biometric identification programs in place to confirm employees are who they say they are. The House bill includes a call for the creation of a pilot biometrics program.