E-Verify's Getting Better, Unless You're an Immigrant

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A new government report shows that E-Verify is getting more accurate, but not for immigrants.

A government report released this week found that E-Verify, a federal program that checks whether someone can legally work in the U.S., is growing more accurate. But not for immigrants.

The report, commissioned by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), showed that the program is doing a good job of telling citizens that they're eligible to work. In 2005, 0.6 percent of citizens were incorrectly flagged as ineligible compared to 0.2 percent in 2010.

But for legal permanent residents and other immigrants who are authorized to work, the program is making more mistakes.

The error rate for non-citizens went from 1.5 percent in 2005 to 2 percent in 2010, according to the report. Perhaps even more worrisome: the rate varied widely over the years in the study.

People who weren't citizens or legal permanent residents -- a group that would include asylees, for example -- saw annual error rates that ranged from 3 percent to 7 percent.

Here's why this matters:

If Congress finds a way to pass an immigration reform bill this year, it will very likely require all employers to check their workforce using E-Verify. There's broad support for a system like that among both Democrats and Republicans, including President Obama.

There's a lot of political momentum behind the program, basically because it's a way to say, "We won't let future waves of undocumented workers get jobs."

But you should be skeptical of the program as a panacea for illegal immigration.

When we say E-Verify is getting more accurate, we're saying that it's doing a better job of flagging people who are actually undocumented. That's like saying that I'm doing a better job at arresting jaywalkers, but it doesn't tell you what percent of all jaywalkers I'm catching.

In other words, the study doesn't tell us how many people with fake documents get through work authorization checks.

A different government report that examined 2007 and 2008 data said the program missed 54 percent of unauthorized workers, mainly as a result of identity fraud.

There's another problem, according to Emily Tulli, the workers' rights policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant-advocacy organization.

The studies released by USCIS tend to underestimate the error rate, according to Tulli. "In the past, it has put forward error rates that are less than what employers on the ground found," she said.

She cites a survey by Los Angeles County, which found that E-Verify failed just over 2 percent of the time in 2008-2009.

The takeaway: E-Verify is getting more accurate overall, but less accurate for immigrants. And it's still not clear what percent of undocumented workers it actually stops from working.