President Obama is in bargaining mode with congressional Republicans about a proposal to require employers to electronically verify that their workers are legal. He named his price—a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—in a single sentence in the White House immigration “blueprint” released in conjunction with Tuesday’s speech in El Paso, Texas.
“Most importantly, this change must be accompanied by a legalization program that allows unauthorized workers to get right with the law,” the blueprint said in its outline for how to roll out a mandatory employee electronic verification program. Republicans largely do not support such a path to citizenship.
The White House’s declaration is essentially a gamble that Obama won’t be forced to veto a stand-alone measure to require employers to use the Homeland Security Department’s voluntary E-Verify program, even though he is on record supporting the idea. E-Verify allows employers to check hires’ identification numbers against Social Security Administration and DHS databases to determine if they are in the country legally.
The House is expected to pass a mandatory E-Verify bill this year. The measure is likely to face resistance from Democrats in the Senate who are trying to revive the Dream Act, which would give undocumented students the chance to earn green cards and go to college.
Obama’s call for a legalization program as part of an E-Verify measure could significantly raise the intensity of the somewhat lackluster immigration conversation that commenced when Republicans took over the House this year criticizing the administration’s enforcement efforts. Obama expressed support for an immigration overhaul in his State of the Union, but until Tuesday, he hadn’t used his bully pulpit in a major way on the issue. In Tuesday’s speech, Obama chastised Republicans for “trying to move the goal posts” by continually demanding more immigration enforcement before considering other proposals.
It’s tough talk, but it isn’t clear whether Obama would actively oppose legislation like a mandatory E-Verify bill because it lacks a path to citizenship. After all, the administration is doggedly trying to remind the public that under Obama’s watch, immigration enforcement has reached unprecedented levels.
There is also no guarantee that the Senate will put the brakes on a mandatory E-Verify bill if it passed the House, and particularly if it had the support of the business community. The Senate last year approved a border security measure that didn’t include the tit-for-tat bargaining chip long desired by many Democrats to give some undocumented workers the chance at citizenship.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and more than 30 other Democrats reintroduced the Dream Act on Wednesday, setting up a reprise of last year’s failed attempt to win the 60 votes needed to pass the measure.
With fewer members in their caucus this year, Democrats will have even less luck. Still, much like Obama’s call for a comprehensive immigration approach, Senate Democrats have nothing to lose from trying. If the effort fails, they can always blame the Republicans.
House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is readying a mandatory E-Verify bill that he plans to introduce in the coming weeks. “We’ll be moving forward with legislation,” Smith told National Journal Daily. “We’ve had ongoing meetings with various groups on E-Verify, very productive meetings on all accounts.”
Smith’s E-Verify bill will include businesses’ No. 1 request—safe harbors against punitive action for employers that unwittingly hire illegal immigrants. “If they have made a good faith effort, they shouldn’t be held liable” for workers that snuck through the screening process with stolen IDs or other fraudulent tactics, Smith said. As such, when he introduces the measure, it will be with the full backing of the business community. Talks right now are centered on how to phase in the requirement, giving smaller companies time to ramp up.
When the government first rolled out E-Verify as a pilot program some 10 years ago, businesses were wary of signing up because they were concerned about high error rates and delays from technical problems. Those days are gone. About 1,300 employers, on average, enroll in E-Verify each week.
Virtually all queries (98.3) percent in 2010 confirmed that hires were legitimate within 24 hours. Most confirmations arrived instantly.
A federally mandated safe harbor would be a welcome development for employers, who are vexed by a range of immigration audits and worksite reviews that have stemmed from the administration over the last two years. Employers say the enforcement officers sometimes don’t know what they’re looking for and wind up fining companies for petty mistakes. Even the White House blueprint on immigration acknowledges that “many find the existing I-9 verification process confusing and difficult to navigate.”
This article appears in the May 12, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.