E-Verify stirs little business interest in San Bernardino County

Published on December 3rd, 2009

James Rufus Koren, Staff Writer

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if(requestedWidth > 0){ document.getElementById(‘articleViewerGroup’).style.width = requestedWidth + "px"; document.getElementById(‘articleViewerGroup’).style.margin = "0px 0px 10px 10px"; } Federal officials say more and more businesses are signing up for E-Verify, a free online program that lets employers check if the people they hire are eligible to work in the U.S., but very few employers in San Bernardino County have signed up and some that have don’t use the program.

About 600 of the roughly 48,000 businesses in San Bernardino County have signed up for the program – that’s fewer than one and a quarter percent of county businesses.

"Businesses don’t have to use it," said Rick Oltman, a spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization, a group that advocates for more immigration control and against illegal immigration. "The law right now is so lax, all they have to do is look at what they think are real documents."

While E-Verify is a voluntary program, it’s sparked heated debate between illegal immigration opponents, who say it should be mandatory; immigrant rights advocates, who say the system is fraught with problems; and businesses that aren’t anxious to add a step to their hiring procedures.

E-Verify has been around since 1997, when the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service started a pilot program to let businesses check the legal work status of new hires.

Marianna Gitomer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which runs the E-Verify system, said about 2,000 employers are signing up for the program each week, up from about 1,000 per week earlier this year.

Even so, fewer than 170,000 employers nationwide have signed up.

Anna Canton, human resources manager for Lasalle Medical Associates in San Bernardino, started using E-Verify in early 2008 and said she’s surprised so few businesses use it.

"I can verify within a minute," she said, noting that she used to wait for minutes on hold when she’d call the Social Security Administration to verify information. "I recommend it. I just wanted something that was reliable and efficient, and this is."

In nearly two years, she said she’s used it maybe a dozen times and every employee she has checked has turned out to be a legal worker.

But immigrants rights groups, including the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center, say it’s not always so simple, especially for naturalized citizens born outside of the country.

In a February 2009 report, the NILC reported that nearly 10 percent of foreign-born U.S. citizens are initially flagged as not eligible to work, while just one tenth of one percent of native-born citizens were flagged.

Gitomer countered that, nationwide, 96.9 percent of employees checked through the system are confirmed on the first try, and 97.2 percent are eventually confirmed.

"We’re pretty confident with the accuracy of the database," she said.

But that confidence hasn’t translated into a willingness among businesses to use the system.

Oltman said that’s because employers are "addicted to this cheap labor."

"If we could shut off the employment magnet, we could cut down on the number of illegal immigrants coming across our borders," he said. "Making (E-Verify) mandatory would be the most obvious and quickest way to screen out illegal workers."

But Jack Brown, chief executive officer of Stater Bros., said businesses have "enough federal supervision" and don’t need to do the extra step.

He said Stater Bros., like most companies, asks potential new workers for documents – such as a social security card, drivers license or passport – which are then examined by the company’s human relations department.

"Our hiring process is not spread out," Brown said. "It’s all here and it’s very tightly controlled. That makes it a lot easier to verify."

Stater Bros. has not signed up for E-Verify. Many of the employers that have signed up do not use the program.

Rosscrete Roofing in Rialto signed up, but the company hasn’t hired anyone since because of the recession. And Jean Craig, who co-owns Frank’s Wholesale Meats in San Bernardino, said she signed up a few years ago but didn’t find it easy to use.

"I never figured out how to use it," Craig said. "But the people we have, we haven’t had a problem. We check their documentation, but I haven’t done it through the computer."

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