E-verify should be part of broader immigration reform efforts, panel says

The electronic system needs biometrics and certification, says Brookings-Duke panel

Improving and certifying the effectiveness of the E-Verify electronic employment verification system should be part of immigration reform efforts, according to a new report from a diverse panel of experts convened by the Brookings Institution and Duke University.

The need for E-Verify has been growing, but the employment verification system presents particular challenges with error rates, including “false negatives” and “false positives,” states the report made Oct 6 by the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable.

The Internet-based E-Verify system is operated jointly by the Homeland Security Department and the Social Security Administration. It allows employers to check an individual’s Social Security Number to determine whether the number is valid. However, the system is not designed to detect stolen or borrowed Social Security numbers, although DHS has added some photographs to the database to help stop  identity frauds.

On Sept. 8, E-Verify became mandatory for use by most federal contractors. It is also required for some employers under state law in 12 states.

The need for E-Verify to determine legal eligibility to work in the United States has been rising, and will continue to grow as the Obama administration proposes reforms to cope with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S., the panel said.

However, the system is flawed. It sometimes falsely deems a legitimate employee ineligible to work, and identity thieves using stolen Social Security numbers and other documents cal fool the system into clearing them. 

To reduce those errors, the report recommends starting a secure national identification system with biometric data, such as secure Social Security cards or driver’s licenses that contain biometric data, along with a personal identification number system such as is used in automatic teller machines.

Each of the biometric options has “pluses and minuses,” the report said, but it recommends that “Congress must adopt one approach, fund it, and make it the linchpin of a reliable workplace verification program.”

The panel also advised that expanding E-Verify as part of an immigrant legalization program should go be combined with creating an oversight mechanism for the system.

It suggested that an independent federal agency, such as the Government Accountability Office, “would need to evaluate the E-Verify system and certify when it had reached a reasonable, previously agreed-upon level of use and effectiveness.”

The report did not specify that level of effectiveness. DHS acknowledges a 3.9 percent error rate in initial determinations of work eligibility under E-Verify; some employers using the system have reported initial error rates as high as 13 percent.

The E-Verify certifications would continue on a regular basis, along with a workplace enforcement regime and inspections, the panel recommended.

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About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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