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Identity Fraud Still a Major Concern for Businesses Using E-Verify (Mar 23, 2011)

Since the passage of House Bill 1804 in 2007, E-Verify has become a mandatory part of the hiring process for many Oklahoma businesses. The electronic system, which checks personal information against a federal database, allows businesses to check the citizenship status of newly hired employees. The idea is to curtail the hiring of undocumented workers in the state. HB 1804 requires public employees and businesses who contract work for the government to confirm that the people they hire are in the United States legally. Despite widespread use of E-Verify, there is a disagreement on how well the system works. Many agree it has at least one glaring flaw.

"The program is still fairly susceptible to a certain type of document fraud. That is, people using the legitimate documents of other people,” said Donald Kerwin, Vice President for Programs at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. Kerwin says this inability to detect identity fraud can leave employers vulnerable.

“What that means if you’re an employer and you use the system, it’s still susceptible to fraud, and you’re still susceptible to hiring people that you’re trying not to hire," Kerwin said. "And, conceivably at risk of penalty yourself.”

In January of 2010 the research organization Westat released a study funded by the Department of Homeland Security. It found that 54% of the unauthorized workers, roughly 56,000 people, that went through E-Verify in 2008 where confirmed as eligible to work. E-Verify was established to run electronic information, and it offers little to no help when dealing with physical fraudulent documents.

“We’re not document experts,” said Tim Wagner, co-owner of Cocina De Mino, a Mexican food restaurant with three Oklahoma City locations. “Business owners aren’t really document experts. They’re really not someone who would know the difference between a good social security card and a bad social security card. If you’ve ever seen a good one, you know what they look like. Well if you’ve ever seen a bad one, they look the same. It’s not an easily spotted difference. We know tacos. We don’t know documents.”

Other employers, like Mike Hogan, Account Executive at a janitorial service called First Maintenance Company, believe it’s not their place to refute the legitimacy of the documents their workers present. “We don’t feel like it’s our business," Hogan said. "If you were to show me your driver’s license, I don’t think it’s my place to say, 'that driver’s license is false.' It’s just not my place to do that. If you show me your documentation I’ll take it at face value and go. And, that’s how we treated everyone.”

By law, employers cannot ask for additional documents on top of those required to fill out an I-9 form. Doing so would leave them vulnerable to possible discrimination lawsuits. According to Douglas Stump, an immigration attorney in Oklahoma City, the problem with fraudulent documents doesn’t end with pressure on the employers. It also opens the door for discrimination of the workers.

“You see a lot of pressure being placed upon employers to make certain they only employ lawful workers,” Stump said. “As a result of that, many make allegations that certain ethnic groups are presenting false documents. So, many employers who are not familiar with the I-9 process will unknowingly violate the law because they will cast these people into a target class and assume that there documents aren’t valid.”

Another concern is that employers on the other end of the spectrum will use E-Verify as a way to exploit undocumented workers, something Michael Brook-Jiminez, another immigration attorney in Oklahoma City, has seen many times.

“I think in difficult times, especially in difficult financial times, it’s easy to vilify a particular group of people. And typically the group of people you tend to vilify are those that don’t talk like you and don’t look like you,” Brooks-Jimiez said. “It’s interesting, but I think HB 1804 was a mechanism for exploitation because as a result, my clients work as subcontractors, either laying bricks or in the construction trades. A lot of the time what will happen is they’ll do their work and when it comes time to get paid from the general contractor the contractor wont pay them. The reason they wont pay them is because they know that their means of redress are limited by the fact that they’re undocumented. Or they’ll threaten to have them deported. So, there’s a lot of intimidation that goes on in those types of situations.”

Allegations such as these are nothing new. HB 1804 and its author, State Representative Randy Terrill of Moore, have certainly seen their share of controversy. During its inception Rep. Terrill claimed that not only would HB 1804 help lower illegal immigration in Oklahoma, it would also save the state money. Both claims have been met with significant criticism. After repeated attempts Rep. Terrill refused to comment for this story.

Despite its drawbacks, E-Verify has improved since its inception in 2007, and many, like Mike Hogan back at First Maintenance Company, agree it has its merits.

“I think E-Verify has been, more or less, a step in the right direction,” Hogan said. “I think that for long term, one day we’ll all look back and say back in 2010 we know that anybody that was hired from that point on had to survive E-Verify. So, there’s not going to be any gray area with those people. They’re good to go. They’re clean.”

In a report released last December, the United States Government Accountability Office found that by expanding the number of databases queried, E-Verify was able immediately confirm 97.4% of the 8.2 million newly hired employees that went through the system in the 2009 fiscal year. That number is up from 92% in 2007. However, the same report contends that identity fraud is still a major concern.

For KGOU, I’m Graham Lee Brewer.

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