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E-Verify without Reform: What it would Really Mean

February 11, 2011 - Posted by Maurice Belanger



On February 10, the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement held a hearing on the E-Verify electronic work authorization verification system.  The title of the hearing was “E-Verify- Preserving Jobs for American Workers,” and Republican members of the Subcommittee tried to portray the use of E-Verify as resulting in a simple equation: one unauthorized worker denied a job by E-Verify equals one job for an American worker.


It’s not that simple.


Some form of electronic work authorization verification system, if done right, might make sense in the context of broader reforms to the immigration system.  That is not what the Subcommittee was considering yesterday.  E-Verify is still in a pilot phase with approximately 3% of employers now using the system.  Republicans on the Subcommittee want to see the mandatory use of the system nationwide.


The problem is that approximately 5% of the U.S. workforce is unauthorized to work legally.  Without broader immigration reforms that include giving that large segment of the workforce the ability to work legally, the national implementation of E-Verify would lead to some perverse results.


While 5% of the U.S. workforce overall may be unauthorized to work, the distribution of unauthorized workers is by no means evenly distributed.  According to the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, the percentage of the agricultural workforce that is not authorized to work is not 5%, but more like 75%.  In a letter submitted for the hearing record, the Coalition stated that there is no rational basis for believing that American workers will fill the slots of all of those unauthorized workers.


“Demographic trends mean fewer and fewer Americans seek the work…. The American workforce has become older, better educated, and more urban. It has chosen lifestyle and employment options other than field work on farms.”


Failure to fill farm work positions with American workers has not been for lack of effort.  The statement gives several examples where government agencies, employer associations, and labor unions attempted to recruit U.S. workers to fill labor shortages on farms.  In one example, from the late 1990’s,


“a multi-county welfare-to-farm-work program was launched in California’s Central Valley. Regional unemployment ran nine to 12 percent; in some localities, unemployment exceeded 20%. State and county agencies and grower associations collaborated to identify cropping patterns, labor needs, training, transportation, and other impediments. Out of over 100,000 prospective “welfare to work” placements, three individuals were successfully placed.”


So, if the agricultural sector were to suddenly lose 75% of its workforce, the reality would be the acceleration of a trend that, the Coalition notes, is already taking place: more of our food will be produced in other countries.


“Congress must understand that mandating enforcement without reform is to accept that other countries will control the very food supply that the latest dietary guidelines suggest should occupy half of our dinner plates.”


Of course, picking up and moving to another country will not be an option for all businesses so reliant on an undocumented workforce.  Another consequence of a mandatory nationwide implementation of e-verify would likely be that more employers would pay workers off the books.


In 2008, the Congressional Budget Office prepared a cost estimate of the Secure America Through Verification and Enforcement Act of 2007 (SAVE Act).  CBO estimated that the Act would,


“[d]ecrease federal revenues by $17.3 billion over the 2009-2018 period. The decrease largely reflects the judgment that mandatory verification of employment eligibility through the E-Verify system would result in an increase in the number of undocumented workers being paid outside the tax system.”


The reality is, if we want to use E-Verify, or something like it, as an enforcement tool in our immigration system, that system will have to be overhauled first.  Otherwise, what we will get is a greater dependence on an underground economy and on imports.


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