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US immigration system could be red tape nightmare

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano launches E-Verify Self Check service on March 21, 2011 in Washington, DC
US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano launches the E-Verify Self Check service on March 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. The new system would require all US employers to check if job applicants are authorized to work risks being a bureaucratic nightm

A new system that would require all US employers to check if job applicants are authorized to work risks being a bureaucratic nightmare for immigrants and US citizens alike, critics said.

The E-Verify system, included in a comprehensive immigration reform package passed by the US Senate last month, draws on official databases to decide if an individual has the right to work in the United States.

The reform package -- which must still be approved by the House of Representatives -- calls for the US-Mexico border fence to be bolstered, creates a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, and requires E-Verify, currently an optional system, to be used nationally.

Pro-immigrant groups said they are willing to agree to E-Verify as part of an overall reform package.

But, they emphasized, the system stands to be improved.

"The problem is that the government databases on which the system relies have a lot of errors within them," Joshua Stehlik, a workers' rights attorney with the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, told AFP.

"Those errors particularly impact non-US citizen workers, as well as female workers and workers who have non-traditional last names," he added.

At the moment, E-Verify is used in some 20 US states and by seven percent of employers (about 411,000). Under the proposed reform, all firms would have to use E-Verify within four years of it becoming law.

When an employer uses the system, an applicant's details are sent for verification to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Of the 20.2 million people who went through the system last year, 1.09 percent were barred from working. Another 0.26 percent were initially turned only, only to be cleared after appeal, according to official DHS figures.

The 0.26 percent error rate amounts to 52,520 people wrongly classified as unfit for work.

Those tens of thousands of US workers must "face a daunting bureaucracy and contest the decision before making a living again," said the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The mistakes risk costing a job opportunity for the applicant involved, whether immigrant or non-immigrant, Brent Wilkes of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) told AFP.

"Employers are kind of lazy, and if they are interviewing 20 people, and one of them comes up with a hit saying that he's not eligible, they'll just say well, let's not bother to call for a second interview," he said.

If E-Verify becomes obligatory, that same 0.26 percent error rate, over all 52 million new jobs filled each year (based on 2012 figures), would equate to 135,200 people having to get through a bureaucratic maze to prove they can work.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) insisted it can handle the expansion of the system, adding that the proportion of mistakes "has been declining over time."

But pro-immigrant groups warned there is also a risk of abuse: "that the system can be misused by employers to retaliate against employees or discriminate against employees," said Stehlik.

That could happen, he said, if an employer "only uses it to verify the authorization of employees of a certain ethnicity, for example, or uses it in a retaliatory way against the employees who are organizing a union in the workplace."

And even an error-free database cannot help if employers choose to break the law and not use it, rights groups said.

Some employers knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, because they are cheap, said ACLU lawyer Chris Calabrese.

"That's the business model," Calabrese said. "They're hiring these folks to pay them under the table, not give them benefits, not pay them a fair wage. ... Those people aren't playing by the rules now.

"Why are they going to play by the rules under the E-Verify system?"

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