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October 2009, Volume 16, Number 4

Obama, E-Verify, Future Flows

Meeting with the Mexican and Canadian presidents in Guadalajara, Mexico on August 10, 2009, President Obama said that comprehensive immigration reform would have to wait until 2010 to allow Congress to deal with health care, energy and financial regulation. Obama said that the US "can create a system in which you have strong border security, we have an orderly process for people to come in, but we're also giving an opportunity for those who are already in the United States to be able to achieve a pathway to citizenship so that they don't have to live in the shadows, and their children and their grandchildren can have a full participation in the United States."

On June 25, 2009, Obama met with a bipartisan group of 30 Senate and House members to discuss immigration reform. On August 20, 2009, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano met with 100 immigrant advocates at the White House; Obama paid the group a visit. The advocates urged Obama to push for immigration reform in 2009 and urged DHS to slow the effort to have state and local police receive training to enforce immigration law. The advocates formed the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) and pledged to push for comprehensive immigration reform.

E-Verify. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), chair of the Immigration Subcommittee, held several hearings to prepare for comprehensive immigration reform. Schumer criticized E-Verify, the now voluntary internet-based system that allows employers to submit the information presented by newly hired workers to be checked against government databases to ensure that they are legally entitled to work in the US. Schumer asserted that E-Verify is not accurate, cannot detect identity theft, and can lead to discrimination.

As of September 2009, some 145,000 employers with 550,000 workplace locations were participating in E-Verify. These employers submitted data on 7.6 million newly hired individuals in the first 11 months of FY09.

DHS prefers to improve E-Verify rather than develop a new employment verification system as suggested by Schumer. DHS says that almost 97 percent of employer queries result in a confirmation of work authorization within seconds. Most of the remaining three percent, so-called "tentative nonconfirmations," are never resolved, suggesting that the individual elected not to contest E-Verify's signal that the person is unauthorized.

In 0.3 percent of the cases, about 19,000 in the first 10 months of FY09, E-Verify falsely labeled a new hire as a tentative nonconfirmation. Individuals who receive tentative non-confirmations have eight days to contact the Social Security Administration to resolve the discrepancy between themselves and the social security number they provided the employer.

Federal contractors and subcontractors were required to participate in E-Verify after September 8, 2009. Seven states? Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island? require all employers in the state or those with state contracts to use E-Verify to check new hires.

DHS is including photos on more of the documents it issues to deter identity theft. DHS wants to include driver's license photos in the E-Verify database, prompting outcries from civil liberties groups worried about Big Brother. DHS has established a new branch to detect E-Verify-related discrimination, as when employers use E-Verify to screen applicants for jobs rather than screening only new hires.

During a July 21, 2009 Senate hearing, most witnesses supported Schumer's call for a biometric-based employment verification system, meaning an employment card with personal information, a fingerprint and photo. However, there were also many critics of a more secure work ID, including those who asked why a biometric ID should be necessary to get a job but not to board an airplane.

Comprehensive immigration reform would include some type of secure ID aimed at preventing unauthorized workers from obtaining US jobs and earned legalization for many of the unauthorized foreigners in the US. Earned legalization means that unauthorized foreigners would have to pay fees and back taxes and demonstrate continued US employment and some knowledge of English to become immigrants.

Future Flows. In the run-up to IRCA in 1986, the "third-leg" of the metaphorical legalization and sanctions stool was an increase in Border Patrol agents to deter illegal entries. Today, the third-leg is "future flows," which stands for new guest worker programs that, according to advocates, would reduce pressure on foreigners to come illegally to the US and for US employers to hire them.

Some proposals call for a commission to determine the number of guest workers and immigrants to be admitted for economic reasons. However, most immigration lawyers and employer advocates do not want to vest power over future flows in an independent commission? they prefer that levels of guest worker and immigrant admissions be set in law.

Employers fear that a commission may listen to unions and other advocates who say there is no need for more guest workers. The AFL-CIO approved a resolution during its September 2009 convention that called for immigration reform to give priority to workers' rights and workplace protections so that prosperity would be shared by all workers, immigrant and native-born. Many union leaders call guest workers "indentured workers" because they are tied to a US employer.

In an effort to satisfy employers and unions, the Migration Policy Institute in July 2009 proposed three-year provisional visas for foreign workers. Under the MPI proposal, migrants would be tied to the employer who sponsored them for their first year in the US, after which they could change US employers. After three years of US employment, provisional visa holders could renew their visas for another three years if they met employment and integration requirements, and they could eventually apply for immigrant visas. MPI proposed that Congress determine the number of provisional visas issued and the criteria for renewal and adjustment to immigrant status.

Polls. More Americans favor reducing immigration, according to a July 10-12 2009 Gallup poll ( Half of those polled favored reducing immigration, a third prefer to keep immigration at current levels, and 14 percent favor increasing immigration.

Between 2002 and 2006, Gallup polls found that a majority of Americans favored decreasing immigration and 10 to 15 percent favored increasing immigration. In 2008, support for increasing immigration rose? 39 percent favored decreasing immigration, 39 percent maintaining at current levels, and 18 percent favored increasing.

Ginger Thompson and Marc Lacey, "Obama Sets Immigration Changes for 2010," New York Times, August 10, 2009. Papademetriou, Demetrios, Doris Meissner, Marc Rosenblum, and Madeleine Sumption. 2009. Aligning Temporary Immigration Visas with US Labor Market Needs: The Case for Provisional Visas. Migration Policy Institute.