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Immigration reform worries E-Verify critics

At a protest over E-Verify. The system continues to thwart some eligible workers at a time lawmakers mull expanding it.

Jessica St. Pierre holds a picture of her family.

Jessica St. Pierre jokes with her grandmother in the kitchen of her north Miami home.

Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks.

Along with the budget, immigration reform was heating up in Washington today. The bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators is reportedly close to introducing a massive immigration reform bill. One big part of the bill is likely to be enforcement. Not just keeping undocumented immigrants from crossing the border, but making sure employers don't hire the ones that might make it across. And it looks like the so-called E-Verify program used by many -- but still not all employers -- will be a key component of that effort. Problem is, it's got a spotty record.

E-Verify works like this: You get hired for a new job, you give your new boss your ID. The boss feeds your information into E-Verify. It runs you through several government databases to be sure you’re authorized to work in the U.S.

It’s supposed to be painless. But it’s not foolproof. Just ask Jessica St. Pierre.

“I got fired for something I never heard of,” she says.

St. Pierre is now extremely well-acquainted with E-Verify. But, in November of 2010, it was new, and mystifying to her. St. Pierre’s parents are immigrants from Haiti and the Bahamas, but she was born in Florida, which was why she was confused when the phone company she was working for fired her that fateful November. E-Verify had flagged her as an unauthorized worker. Turns out her employer had made a simple clerical error. St. Pierre puts a period after the “saint” part of her last name, but her employer’s computer system didn’t do that, confusing E-Verify.

“What ended up happening was that the employer placed two spaces after the St. That is what caused all of this,” she explains.

That punctuation problem left St. Pierre unemployed for almost three months. She finally landed a new job, paying $2 less an hour.

So why would Congress consider making E-Verify mandatory for every employer, if it gets tripped up by an extra space in someone’s name?

“It’s a system that actually has shown improvements over time,” says Muzaffar Chishti, who is with the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute. Chishti has studied E-Verify since 1997. He says, yes, there’ve been mistakes with E-Verify saying legal employees, like St. Pierre, are not authorized to work. Or approving workers who are actually in the U.S. illegally. Chishti says, at first, E-Verify’s error rate was terrible -- 8 to 10 percent. But now, it’s down to less than 2 percent.

He says, “Clearly there is still error in the system, but it has certainly gone down over the years and that’s progress.”

But, immigrant rights groups say, even the lowest error rate of .8 percent works out to more than a million people being falsely labeled as unauthorized to work. And Chishti says E-Verify still isn’t quite ready for prime time. He says it couldn’t handle every single employee in the U.S. right away. Only 350,000 employers are using it now. That could spike to eight million under immigration reform. Still, employers are now assuming E-Verify will be part of any immigration legislation coming out of Washington.

“I would bet my house and my car that there’s going to be mandatory E-Verify for all U.S. businesses in any immigration reform that comes out of Congress this year,” says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks, a federation of labor-intensive businesses like restaurants, and farms.

Jacoby says E-Verify is continuing to improve, experimenting with a self-serve system that gives workers a password and security questions so they prove their identity and eligibility to work.

That’s cold comfort for Jessica St. Pierre.  Jessica laughs a lot, joking with her grandmother in the kitchen of her north Miami home, occasionally lapsing into Creole as they plan a family vacation. But, despite her easy laugh, Jessica is still traumatized by her brush with E-Verify. She’s applied for a few jobs with employers that use it.

“Oh man, the stress comes back," she says. "What if they run my name through the system again? It’s something that, you know you constantly want to look over your shoulder because I got fired for it. I don’t want to get fired for it again.”

E-Verfiy is not up to par, St. Pierre says. And she worries that it never will be.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

Jessica St. Pierre holds a picture of her family.

Jessica St. Pierre jokes with her grandmother in the kitchen of her north Miami home.

Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks.

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