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A Look At The E-Verify Program And Its Blind Spots


Mississippi is one of several states that require employers to use a federal program designed to stop them from hiring people in the U.S. illegally. That program, known as E-Verify, lets employers check whether new hires are eligible to work in the U.S. Two of the companies raided this week by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including Koch Foods, say they do use E-Verify, and yet the government believes they hired hundreds of workers without legal authorization.

To talk about E-Verify and its blind spots, I spoke with Madeline Zavodny. She is an economist at the University of North Florida, and she first explained how E-Verify works.

MADELINE ZAVODNY: Once the employer's made an offer to a worker, the worker's required to supply identity documents, like a passport, driver's license, Social Security number. The employer fills out what's called an I-9 form. If the employer has signed up with E-Verify, the employer enters that information into a website run by the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security then checks that information - the name, the Social Security number and stuff - and makes sure that that name and number are valid for working in the United States. It then returns a notice to the employer if it's not valid, and the employer then is supposed to tell the worker and either dismiss the worker if the worker can't, you know, come up with valid documents or the worker, you know, cleans up whatever's going on.

SHAPIRO: So explain how these Mississippi companies could say they use E-Verify, and yet ICE arrests hundreds of people working there who apparently are undocumented.

ZAVODNY: So the companies are definitely registered with E-Verify, and there's no reason to believe that they didn't use it. The problem is, that if the worker presents valid documents that are not the worker's but are instead just identity fraud, the...

SHAPIRO: So somebody presents my Social Security number, for example.

ZAVODNY: Absolutely. In your name - then they're going to get through the system.

SHAPIRO: Is that the primary way that people slip through the cracks or are there companies that are kind of complicit in helping people avoid getting identified by E-Verify?

ZAVODNY: It's hard to know. I think you have some cases where the employer really wants the worker and maybe is going to turn a blind eye. But in other cases, you know, the worker has purchased documents that appear to be completely valid and that the system is going to just send through.

SHAPIRO: Does agriculture generally support this system or are the shortcomings of this system something that they are OK with?

ZAVODNY: So about half of agricultural workers in the country are undocumented immigrants. And we've seen a slow but steady shift toward using legal, temporary foreign workers through what's called the H-2A program over time, as unauthorized immigration into the United States has, you know, eased and there's been fewer entries, particularly from Mexico. But nonetheless, employers really are depending on having an undocumented workforce in a lot of agricultural areas.

SHAPIRO: How well do you think the system generally works?

ZAVODNY: I think it's a mixed bag. About half of new hires nationally are being run through the system. But this, you know, illustrates that the system has flaws. There are no biometrics associated with the system, so as long as there's a valid name and number, there's no reason for the worker not to be approved.

In most of the states that have required all employers to use it, there was an initial drop in the number of unauthorized immigrants living in those states; Arizona is the most notable case of that. Alabama was - saw a big drop when it adopted its law as well. But we don't know a whole lot at the employer-level as to what's happened.

SHAPIRO: If you were to wave a magic wand and somehow change the system to make it more effective, what do you think would have the biggest impact?

ZAVODNY: Biometrics. But it would be costly to employers, to us as taxpayers, to some workers as well.

SHAPIRO: Madeline Zavodny is an economist at the University of North Florida.

Thanks for talking with us today.

ZAVODNY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.