E-Verify Not Worth the Price to Americans

Monday, March 5, 2018
E-Verify may target illegal immigrants, but the US businessman and worker will pay for it dearly. (Grand Canyon National Park)

Brace yourselves.

A national biometric identity program awaits us all. That’s if immigration-control proponents have their way.

Advocates for stricter immigration enforcement have recently rallied for expanding E-Verify nationwide, in the name of curtailing the vast population of illegal immigrants in the United States.

E-Verify Origins

E-Verify is an Internet-based system that gives businesses the tools to determine a potential employee’s legal status in the United States. E-Verify has its origins in the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which made it illegal to knowingly hire workers who were not legally authorized to work in the United States. The IRCA mandates that employers verify their employee’s work status through the collection of completed I-9 forms.

Seems straightforward, right?

In their paper Checking E-Verify, Alex Nowrasteh and Jim Harper illustrate how E-Verify’s systemic flaws could morph into a massive boondoggle if implemented on a national scale. They start off by laying out how the IRCA not only failed to contain illegal immigration, it also boosted black-market incentives for illegal immigration and imposed burdensome regulatory costs on American businesses.

In typical government fashion, the political establishment responded by introducing a new, expanded program. The Basic Employment Verification Pilot of 1997 aimed to rectify the flaws of the IRCA. The Department of Homeland Security would later re-brand the Basic Pilot as “E-Verify” in the early 2000s. Currently, E-Verify is a voluntary program, and only the federal government, federal contractors, and a handful of states mandate its usage.

The Campaign for a National Mandate

Immigration-control advocates now want to make E-Verify the universal standard for all business in the United States. This is not just confined to the grassroots; E-Verify counts on support from the executive branch. President Donald Trump has called for E-Verify to be used to “the fullest extent possible under existing law” and promised to “work with Congress to strengthen and expand its use across the country.”

While some concerns about illegal immigration are valid, using E-Verify to combat this issue is misguided and has the potential to impose excessive costs in both economic and privacy terms.

The Hidden Costs of E-Verify

For starters, E-Verify is not free. As mentioned before, E-Verify is a creature of the US government and is funded by taxpayers. Implementation costs aside, E-Verify supporters ignore opportunity costs that this policy will inevitably incur. The current I-9 system costs employees approximately 13.48 million man-hours, and adding another layer of bureaucracy like a national E-Verify program would only increase costs. Instead of allocating time towards expanding business operations, businesses would be stuck spending countless hours complying with arbitrary bureaucratic standards. 

An Inefficient Detector of Illegal Immigration

E-Verify’s track record for detecting illegal immigration in states currently using it has been spotty at best. According to research conducted by Westat in 2009, roughly 54 percent of unauthorized workers in E-Verify’s system were erroneously granted legal work status due to rampant document fraud. This is understandable given that E-Verify just checks the documents presented, not the worker himself. In turn, unauthorized workers would just rely on the black market to provide forged documents that don’t raise any alarms in E-Verify’s system.

The Dangers of False Positives

One of the most insidious features of E-Verify is its tendency to produce false positives that kick American citizens out of the labor market. Some estimates indicate 0.15 percent of E-Verify submissions generate a false “final non-confirmation.” Albeit a small percentage, applying E-Verify nationally has the potential to convert this trivial figure into a significant number of false positives that would bar unprecedented numbers of authorized Americans from working. This systemic flaw has already made many businesses and institutions reluctant to adopt E-Verify on a voluntary basis.

A Vehicle for Civil-Liberties Violations

Economic arguments aside, E-Verify opens the door for potential civil-liberties violations. At the state level, E-Verify has already showcased its numerous flaws, but like its IRCA predecessor, proponents will clamor for E-Verify to receive even larger budgets and expanded powers.

Eventually, the government will integrate other biometric data like fingerprints and iris scans under the guise of “fixing” the system, which would effectively create a national ID system. In times of “crisis,” there’s no telling what power-hungry politicians would do with a national E-Verify mandate at their disposal: create a national gun registry, have access to sensitive medical information, etc.

In sum, immigration-control proponents should be careful regarding what they wish for. Instead of focusing on top-down measures to tackle the issue of immigration, policymakers should consider decentralized approaches that streamline the legal immigration process, thus making it more attractive to prospective immigrants.

As it stands right now, E-Verify is simply not worth the price or civil-liberties hassle.

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José Niño

José Alberto Niño is a Venezuelan-American political activist based in Fort Collins, Colorado, and he has been an AIER contributor since 2017. He has lived in Chile, Venezuela, and the United States. His experiences living abroad have played a crucial role in shaping his free-market philosophy and respect for individual liberty. Follow @JoseAlNino.