GAO Report Highlights The ‘Significant Challenges’ That Remain In Improving E-Verify

Yesterday, the General Accountability Office — the investigative arm of Congress — released a report assessing the nation’s currently voluntary electronic employment verification program, E-Verify. The report, entitled “Federal Agencies Have Taken Steps to Improve E-Verify, but Significant Challenges Remain” found that though the program has significantly improved, it still contains some troubling problems:

Data Inaccuracies
A “tentative nonconfirmation” (TNC) means that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot immediately confirm the work authorization of a worker. When this happens, it’s up to the worker to clear up the error with SSA or DHS and they can’t work until they do. The GAO describes that process as “difficult” and rife with “formidable challenges.” There are a lot of reasons someone might receive a TNC, including SSA database errors or a failure to report a name change to the SSA. The GAO notes that USCIS has “reduced TNCs from 8 percent during the time period June 2004 through March 2007 to almost 2.6 percent in fiscal year 2009.” It sounds like a relatively small number, however, when spread over a large population, the error-rate is significant. According to GAO, if the program were made mandatory for new hires nationwide, about 164,000 citizens and noncitizens would receive a name-related TNC each year. That number would balloon if E-Verify were made mandatory for all employees nationwide and not just new hires.

The GAO also affirmed that, ” Despite USCIS and SSA’s efforts to reduce erroneous TNCs, identity fraud remains a challenge in part because employers may not be able to determine if employees are presenting genuine identity and employment eligibility documents that are borrowed or stolen.” The report cites a separate study conducted in 2008 which estimated that of the 6.2 percent of employees who were not authorized to work in the United States, slightly over half of them were incorrectly confirmed by E-Verify as eligible to work.

Employer Misuse
The report also found that USCIS is “limited in its ability to ensure compliance with E-Verify policies and procedures.” Some of the noncompliance is unintentional and simply a result of employers not understanding the E-Verify program. However, other employers are abusing it. The GAO notes, “workers who are wrongly terminated or suffer other adverse employment consequences because employers fail to follow the MOU receive no protection or remedies under federal law.” Abuses can include “limiting the pay of or terminating employees who receive TNCs, using E-Verify to prescreen job applicants, or screening employees who are not new hires.” The program leaves employees vulnerable to civil rights abuses and discrimination.

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), has already stated that he plans to focus on expanding E-Verify and potentially making it mandatory in some areas. After the GAO released its report, his office issued a press release calling E-Verify a “remarkably effective tool” and stating, “Expanding E-Verify and encouraging more businesses to use the program is an important step toward protecting jobs for American workers and eliminating the jobs magnet that draws millions of illegal workers to the U.S.”

Certainly, the nation’s current compulsory employment verification system needs to be improved. It’s hard to imagine that any solution will be perfect. Nonetheless, it’s worrisome that rather than focusing on how to improve E-Verify, Smith is already talking about expanding a program which seems like it has a way to go before it’s acceptable. In fact, the GAO went as far to conclude that if E-Verify became mandatory in its current form, “more unscrupulous employers could have the opportunity to hire unauthorized workers without much risk of detection.”