Illegal immigration has always been a plank issue electorally for both the political parties that dominate American political discourse. Republicans have used it to whip up nationalistic sentiment among their base, while Democrats have wooed ethnic communities by presenting a more comprehensive approach to resolving the issue of 11 million or so undocumented workers in the United States.

One attempt to deal with the problem of illegal immigration is the E-Verify program which grew out of a pilot program in 1997 to help small businesses ensure that their employees were legally within the country and eligible to work. Today E-Verify is an Internet-based, free program run by the United States government that compares information from an employee’s Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9 to data from U.S. government records. If the information matches, that employee is eligible to work in the United States. If there’s a mismatch, E-Verify alerts the employer and the employee is allowed to work while he or she resolves the problem; they must contact the appropriate agency to resolve the mismatch within eight federal government work days from the referral date. The program is operated by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in partnership with Social Security Administration. (Source: Wikipedia)

As of now, the program is voluntary; however, some states like Arizona have chosen to make it mandatory and after a challenge in the Supreme Court, it has been established that states do have the right to do so.

Now congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has introduced HR 2164, known as the Legal Workforce Act, which essentially seeks to make E-Verify mandatory across the nation.

In a conference call with members of the ethnic media, members of the Center for American Progress presented the results of a study that showed how expensive this program is likely to be and how it even went against the core Republican philosophies of small government and lower spending.

E-Verify is indeed an expensive proposition. For individuals who are erroneously flagged by the system, the study estimates a cost of $190 per person in transportation and lost wages cost to rectify the situation. Also, by requiring a photo ID, the system imposes an average cost of $225 per person to obtain the ID. There are also significant costs for small businesses to adopt the program, get legal and technical assistance, and defend against potential lawsuits. The costs to the federal government to set up and administer this program is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the cost of the program is not the primary issue of contention with Congressman Smith’s proposal. What is alarming immigration activists is the concern that, should this standalone bill come to pass, it would be the death knell for comprehensive immigration reform. There would be no leverage left for creating a path to legalizing the many workers who are undocumented today.

The legalization of undocumented (or illegal, depending on your political bent) workers may not find widespread approval but it does offer some benefits that are not well-known.

– Most undocumented workers pay into the system through taxes and social security payments.

– Stricter enforcement usually drives these undocumented workers to the underground, cash economy, reducing federal revenues and opening the door to worker exploitation.

– Undocumented workers form a bulwark of agricultural employment. Georgia’s immigration laws have created a shortage of 11,000 agricultural workers, which the state is now scrambling to fill through prisoners on probation!

It is not surprising, then, that empirical evidence shows that E-Verify is not popular among small businesses. In Arizona, which enacted the law in January 2008, only 5% of businesses had enrolled after a year, despite the mandatory nature of the program.

The likelihood of the HR 2164 actually making it through both houses of Congress is not high, but it is a short-sighted approach that needs pushback. A blueprint suggested by the White House is a more comprehensive approach and deserves a closer look.

In California, E-Verify is still voluntary though several cities have made it mandatory through local ordinances. In the coming months cities like San Jose and Santa Barbara are also considering similar measures.

Do you use E-Verify? What has your experience been? Is your city getting ready to make it compulsory?

Let us know.