WASHINGTON — A hotly contested bill moving this week would compel employers to verify worker eligibility via the Internet while it ratchets up the nation's perennial immigration debate.
Farmers fear it. Skeptics sweat potential errors. But in the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee, mandatory E-Verify is now an idea whose time has come. Whether the full Congress and White House agree is quite another matter.
"E-Verify is a jobs killer, but only for illegal workers," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "For Americans and legal workers, it is a jobs protector."
Smith chairs the House Judiciary Committee and authored the so-called Legal Workforce Act, currently backed by 62 members of the House of Representatives. His panel is scheduled to mark up the bill Wednesday and, if necessary, Thursday as well.
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The bill would make mandatory what is at present a free, voluntary E-Verify program, currently used by about 250,000 U.S. employers. The participants electronically check worker eligibility through Social Security or Department of Homeland Security databases.
Some 16 million worker eligibility inquiries annually are being filed electronically, with more each year as states add their own requirements. Eighteen states currently mandate some form of E-Verify use; some, like Arizona, cover all employers, while states like Florida, Idaho and North Carolina cover only state agencies.
Last term, in a defeat for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Supreme Court upheld the authority of states to mandate E-Verify use.
"Arizona hopes that its law will result in more effective enforcement of the prohibition on employing unauthorized aliens," Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. noted in the 5-3 majority opinion.
The new bill would phase in nationwide mandatory participation over two years, covering new hires. Agricultural employers would get three years to comply and, in a bid to soften farmer resistance, seasonal farm workers would be exempt so long as they kept returning to the same employer.
The special agricultural exceptions come nowhere close, though, to mollifying farm groups that rely on a largely illegal workforce.
"None of our workers would qualify," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno, Calif.-based Nisei Farmers League. "We'd be dead. It would be over for us."
The California farm groups, among others, have been rallying behind Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., a member of the judiciary panel who proposes adding an agricultural guest-worker program to the mandatory E-Verify bill.
"I was an original co-sponsor of E-Verify, but we have to have contemporaneous action on an agricultural guest-worker bill," Lungren said Tuesday.
Lungren, who helped write a guest-worker bill in the 1980s, added, "It's my judgment that E-Verify will not pass on the floor of the House unless there's a solution to the agriculture problem."
Smith has offered his own agricultural worker proposal, denounced as inadequate by California farm organizations.
At least through the committee, the bill's prospects nonetheless still appear bright. Republicans enjoy a 22-16 advantage in the Judiciary Committee, and the bill has been praised by the likes of the National Restaurant Association. Democrats have been largely skeptical of the bill, though some support E-Verify.
The politically potent U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has voiced concerns in the past, now calls the House E-Verify bill a "legitimate balancing" of interests even as it cautions that "some concerns and technical issues may arise."
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, a comparable bill, co-sponsored by 10 Republican senators, contains stricter provisions opposed by the business group.
The Senate bill, for instance, would require all current workers to be checked through the E-Verify system within three years, while the House bill would primarily be limited to newly hired employees.
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