WASHINGTON — The Bush administration, in an aggressive new effort to keep illegal immigrants out of the workforce, on Monday ordered all companies doing business with the federal government to begin ensuring their employees can legally work in the U.S.
The order will require thousands of firms to use a government system called E-Verify to check workers' Social Security numbers. The system has been voluntary for private firms but mandatory for government agencies.
The policy, which initially applies to new hires, eventually could affect millions of federal contract workers nationwide whose jobs range from serving cafeteria food to launching NASA spacecraft. The step is one of several the administration planned after Congress failed last year to pass an overhaul of immigration laws.
"The federal government should lead by example and not by exhortation," said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has encouraged firms to use E-Verify.
Groups advocating immigration restrictions have embraced E-Verify as a way to weed out illegal workers. But it has been criticized by business groups and immigrant advocates because errors in the Social Security database can lead to red-flagging legal residents.
And with the rapid expansion of federal contracting under President Bush, some critics questioned whether the order would be workable.
"I just don't know how the administration is going to enforce this," said Paul C. Light, a New York University professor and federal contracting expert who said such outsourcing had grown by 70% under Bush. "It's a very large number and very difficult to track. Who is responsible for making sure the sub-sub-sub-contractor is using E-Verify?"
E-Verify is already a success, Chertoff said, predicting that the executive order would affect "hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers."
Chertoff made the announcement during an appearance with Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez in which they touted administration progress in enforcing immigration laws and beefing up border security. They also urged Congress to pass an immigration overhaul including guest worker programs, enforcement, and some accommodation for illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
"We cannot neglect our economic security, and that is exactly what we're doing by neglecting comprehensive immigration reform," said Gutierrez, who worked with Chertoff and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the 2007 legislation.
E-Verify is now used by more than 69,000 companies, with about 1,000 firms signing up weekly for the free Internet-based system.
Many companies have enrolled because of stepped-up federal immigration raids. In industries that traditionally rely on immigrant labor, such as meatpacking, companies understand that not using E-Verify can prompt immigration officials to take a closer look.
Chertoff said E-Verify cleared 99.5% of qualified employees automatically. But in 2006 the Social Security inspector general found discrepancies in 17.8 million records for citizens and legal immigrants that would create a "significant workload" to correct.
Lawmakers and other critics warned that forcing the more than 200,000 federal contractors to join E-Verify could overwhelm the Social Security Administration and create havoc for legal workers.
"As the administration requires more employers and workers to move into E-Verify, it should at the same time ensure that the system does not impinge upon U.S. citizens' fundamental right to earn a living," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), head of the House subcommittee on immigration.
Firms doing business with the government risk losing their contracts if they break federal rules. Some business executives worry the new requirement could add expenses.
"There's concern about increased costs and delays in hiring brought about by inaccuracies in the database," said Neal J. Couture, executive director of the National Contract Managers Assn.
Timothy D. Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union argued that E-Verify was "not real immigration enforcement" because the system could not detect applicants who used documents stolen from legal workers. He predicted the system would prompt more identity theft by illegal immigrants.
"American workers' identities are essentially going to become a black market commodity," Sparapani said.
Still, many were pleased by Monday's action. "With today's announcement by Secretary Chertoff, we are diminishing the ability of illegal immigrants to find employment in the United States," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Carlsbad).
Added Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates restricting all immigration: "It's an excellent idea, long overdue."