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R.I. workers may face immigration checks

The Rhode Island Senate Judiciary Committee heard a bill March 22 that would require all non-governmental employers with more than three employees to check the immigration status of job applicants in E-Verify, a federal employment verification database.

The committee recommended the bill be held for further study. But state Sen. Marc Cote, D-Woonsocket and North Smithfield, who proposed the bill in February, said he is hopeful the bill — with 20 co-sponsors and several other senators supporting it — will pass.

E-Verify is currently voluntary for employers in Rhode Island. About 2,800 employers in the state use E-Verify, according to Cote. Under the proposed bill, 18,000 companies would use it. Cote said over 95 percent of employers who currently use E-Verify are satisfied with the system because it is free, web-based and easy to use.

The only current procedure for checking the legality of job applicants is the I-9, a federal job registration form filed with the Department of Labor, but there is no mechanism to verify if the information provided is true. Job applicants can participate in fraudulent document trafficking to acquire counterfeit forms of identification and work authorization documents, Cote said. Such an operation was discovered in Pawtucket in February, he added.

There are an estimated 20,000 illegal immigrants in R.I., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Cote said. In light of the state's struggling economy and double-digit unemployment rate, the bill is designed to take care of Rhode Islanders, Cote said.

Colleen Conley, president and founder of the Rhode Island Tea Party, echoed this viewpoint. She said the Tea Party sees undocumented workers not as a social issue but as a fiscal one. The Tea Party supports the bill because it sends the message that the state is serious about making sure citizens receive "whatever few jobs" are available, she said. The bill would show Rhode Island is not putting out a "welcome mat" for illegal immigrants thinking of coming to the state to look for a job, she said.

She said that illegal immigration also puts a financial burden on taxpayers because they receive free healthcare, public education and English as a Second Language programs.

But Juan Garcia, president of Immigrants in Action, said Rhode Island's Hispanic community brings "more economic power to the state." Rhode Island benefits on many levels if more people are working, regardless of their citizenship status, he said.

Cindy Butler, legislative director for the Rhode Island State Council of the Society for Human Resource Management, wrote in her testimony to the Senate committee that although the council is "committed to hiring only work-authorized individuals," E-Verify is the "wrong choice" for Rhode Island. She cited problems of "erroneous tentative non-confirmations," a mistake that arises from the system failing to understand hyphenated, abbreviated or multiple surnames. These types of names, more common among employees of Hispanic and Arab descent, can lead to a disproportionate number of hiring denials among these ethnic groups and can be considered discrimination, she said.

But Terry Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, said E-Verify is 99.6 percent accurate.

If an employer checks an applicant's status in E-Verify and discovers a problem with immigration status, the applicant has eight days to contact the U.S. Social Security Administration to clear up the problem. This time frame can be extended if Social Security officials believe there is potential for an administrative error, such as an overlooked name change.

But Alexandra Filindra, a Brown postdoctoral research associate in public policy specializing in American immigrations, said the process to correct this is "complicated and onerous," so immigrants could be penalized because of errors in the database.

"E-Verify continues to remain vulnerable to identity theft," Butler said, because "unauthorized workers (can) use stolen or borrowed Social Security numbers" and other fake identification.

E-Verify only addresses a minor part of the complicated issue of immigration, Filindra said. For example, though it checks the status of employees, there is no mechanism to ensure that employers will not hire the illegal applicants anyway and "abuse undocumented labor," she said. She added that the private labor market is where many abuses occur, and since many illegal immigrants are hired by families to be babysitters, house cleaners or landscapers — which "falls out of the scope of E-Verify" — the bill would do nothing to address the social costs or labor abuses associated with illegal immigration.

The E-Verify bill is an "insufficient and erroneous way to go about solving the problem" of undocumented immigration, Filindra said. She said the bill would not deter illegal immigrants from coming to Rhode Island and would do nothing to address the "presence of 10 million undocumented people (in the United States) who are not likely to go away."

Under former governor Donald Carcieri '65, the state used E-Verify to check the status of all state job applicants. Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 ended the practice when he took office in January. Mike Trainor, spokesman for Chafee, said the governor's position remains unchanged and called E-Verify a "divisive tool."



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