The Obama administration continued its push for a legal workforce Wednesday with an announcement that federal contractors and subcontractors would soon be required to verify that their employees are eligible to work in the U.S.
Beginning Sept. 8, the government will award contracts only to companies that enroll in E-Verify, an online program that uses federal databases to check whether employees are in the country legally and authorized to work. Businesses receiving money under the federal stimulus program also will be subjected to the rule, adopted under President George W. Bush but never implemented.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced plans to throw out a rule that would have allowed the federal government to use mismatched Social Security data to find illegal immigrants in the workplace.
The "no-match" rule had been on hold since October 2007, when a federal judge in San Francisco decided that punishing companies that didn't clear up discrepancies between names and Social Security numbers would cause "irreparable harm to innocent workers." Groups that filed the lawsuit against the government argued that some mistakes are just mistakes and not proof of fraud.
"The idea is to make sure that we are providing employers with a system of employee verification that is accurate, respects the laws of privacy and is truly a good and strong model to maintain a legal workforce," said Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler.
Separately, the Senate passed an amendment Wednesday that would mandate the use of E-Verify by federal contractors and subcontractors.
Napolitano's move comes one week after her department notified more than 650 businesses nationwide of pending audits of their employment records. The department also recently issued guidelines for immigration agents to go after employers rather than just workers.
Supporters of E-Verify said the expansion of the effort to federal contractors and subcontractors would help crack down on illegal immigrants in the workforce and could help stem the flow of migrants across the border. Critics said mandating the program for federal contractors would only slow the country's economic recovery.
Randel Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that although some employers hadn't had any problems with E-Verify, others had received inaccurate information from the government's database.
"It should be rolled out slowly and tested rather than being applied to the employer community immediately," he said.
The chamber filed a lawsuit in 2008 to prevent the government from implementing the contractor requirement, arguing that the president did not have the authority to mandate a voluntary program.
Other business groups praised the administration for Wednesday's move but said more needed to be done, such as legalizing undocumented workers.
"We believe, of course, that there has to be a mechanism to verify the legal work status of employees," said Beto Cardenas, executive counsel to Americans for Immigration Reform, a Houston-based coalition of businesses. "But we also believe that immigration reform has to be brought."
American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Jenny Chang Newell called the decision to abandon the no-match rule "a victory for all American workers."
The ACLU was a plaintiff in the suit that prompted the ruling in San Francisco two years ago. But Newell said she had concerns about the E-Verify requirement and its potential to cause discrimination and unlawful firings based on inaccurate databases.
"Rather than punishing American workers for errors in the government's own databases, the administration should enforce the workplace rights of all workers," she said.