Following terror attacks, Pa. lawmakers take another stab at statewide E-Verify law

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Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in a file photo from August 2017. (AP, file)

Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in a file photo from August 2017. (AP, file)

Recent ISIS-backed terrorist attacks in Brussels attacks provided a jumping-off point for a troika of immigration reform bills introduced in Pennsylvania, including the revival of a bill to mandate use of the E-Verify system, a federal program for vetting identity documents.

“The illegal alien invasion that’s happening here in America provides an immense cover and camouflage for those who would seek to do our country harm,” said state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, at a news conference in Harrisburg on Wednesday.

E-Verify, administered by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, is a free portal for employers to cross check their workers’ identification papers against federal databases, such as that of the Social Security Agency.

Metcalfe, who first sponsored a bill to require private employers to use the federal legal status check in 2009, pointed to a new version of the bill as a way to “stop people from stealing the American dream.”

The bill stipulates that public and private employers, who would be subject to a “random auditing program,” would face fines if found to have undocumented immigrants in their employ.

Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Utah already have similar laws on the books.

Piloted in 1997, E-Verify remains a voluntary program, although its reach has spread since its inception. The federal government already requires employers to hire only documented workers, but it doesn’t mandate any particular system for checking. As a result, many employers go by the eyeball rule — if the papers look real, it’s good enough.

Some states use E-Verify for their own agency hires; others require public contractors to use it. In 2012, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett  signed a bill into law that put Pennsylvania in that second category.

Issues of liability

While E-Verify is supposed to only flag employees who have fake or expired documentation, clerical errors have caused problems that make advocates and business owners alike skittish. Legal immigrants with similar names, those whose names have changed or those whose status has changed may show up in the system as lacking the proper work authorization.

“There have been cases in other states where someone has been terminated improperly because of that E-Verify system, and the employer is liable for back wages, etc.,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. Barr said he would not support a bill that puts employers on the hook for these errors.

Immigration advocates also have concerns about false identification, pointing out that while errors are rare, the system gives a “false negative” for legal immigrants at a greater rate than any other group.

Advocates also fear mandating use of the national database lays the groundwork for state surveillance straight out of a George Orwell novel.

“E-Verify, frankly, is the infrastructure for a national ID,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

Based on its track record and without the support from the business community, a E-Verify law seems unlikely in Pennsylvania. Still, the number of area employers using E-Verify voluntarily, including Urban Outfitters, has grown. According to the Migration Policy Institute, about one in every four hires in the country was run through the E-Verify system in 2010.

Other immigration bills promoted with the E-Verify bill include one by Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, which would penalize municipalities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration hold orders, and a bill backed by Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, to make sure undocumented immigrants aren’t accessing unemployment and other benefits.

Metcalfe’s office did not respond to request for comment.

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