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E-Verify is Not Ready for Prime Time

Sandra Fulton,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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April 22, 2011

Last week, House Republicans called a hearing on the status of the employment verification system E-Verify. E-Verify is basically a series of giant, Internet-based government databases that contains a list of all American workers and whether they are eligible to work. The system is currently voluntary, but some in Congress would like to make it mandatory because they mistakenly believe it will curb undocumented immigrants working in America. While the evidence doesn’t seem to support this theory — E-Verify only catches one in every two undocumented workers — what was interesting about this hearing was the variety of other problems that will likely occur, including concerns over the program’s vulnerability to ID theft and its impact on lawful workers.

E-verify would create one of the largest and most widely accessible databases ever created in the U.S. Since the first data breach notification law went into effect in California at the beginning of 2004, more than 510 million records have been hacked, lost or disclosed improperly. Data breaches continue to be a contributing factor to identity theft and a constant erosion of Americans’ privacy and sense of security.

Ana I. Anton, Ph.D., a Professor of Computer Science at North Carolina State University, testified that there is no such thing as a completely secure system and warned that tacking more and more databases on to E-Verify to try to guarantee proper identification of individuals would only increase security risks. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) agreed, and said that he did not want to see us piling more systems on top of E-Verify if E-Verify is turning out to be a failed system.

Witnesses from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the American Council on International Personnel also expressed concerns about the accuracy of the information in the database and the burden correcting errors will put on the SSA and lawful American workers. Though the system’s accuracy rate has improved, there are still common mistakes that can delay or deny an American his or her right to work. Last year, the most recent GAO report found that errors in the system lead to an estimated 80,000 Americans being denied their legal right to work. If E-Verify were mandatory, that number would balloon to 770,000. That workload would cause an enormous ripple impact on SSA in particular — the agency whose database would need to be corrected, where the wait for 30 percent of cases already exceeds 270 days. In our current economy, Americans don’t have time to line up for hours at a busy SSA office to correct errors in order to get a paycheck.

Sure — there is an issue of undocumented workers in this country, but subjecting all working Americans to an error-prone data system that puts them at risk of identity theft is not the way to ease our troubled economy. Even the majority on the committee who favor E-Verify could not argue otherwise.

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