Obama Revives Bush Idea of Using E-Verify to Catch Illegal Contract Workers

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

President Obama will abandon a controversial immigration crackdown, sought by his predecessor, to pressure U.S. companies to fire 9 million workers with suspect Social Security numbers, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced yesterday.

Instead, Obama will mandate that federal contractors confirm the identities of 4 million workers against federal databases beginning in September, pushing ahead under pressure from Senate Republicans with another long-stalled Bush administration initiative.

Napolitano said her department will rescind a 2007 rule, tied up in federal court, that would have sent Social Security "no-match" letters to 140,000 U.S. employers. The notices were to warn companies to resolve discrepancies or fire suspect workers within 90 days, or face criminal penalties.

Instead, she said, the Department of Homeland Security will take a "more modern and effective" approach, ordering an estimated 170,000 federal contractors to confirm employees' work documents against E-Verify, until now a voluntary electronic government system for companies to check new hires' immigration and Social Security data.

Combined with a renewed emphasis by the DHS on targeting companies that hire illegal immigrants with civil fines and audits instead of high-profile raids, the moves mark the clearest sign yet of Obama's efforts to chart a middle course on immigration enforcement, analysts said.

The administration's announcement appeared aimed at satisfying law-and-order conservatives on Capitol Hill, where Senate Republicans successfully amended Homeland Security's $43 billion 2010 budget yesterday to extend E-Verify to federal contractors and to expand construction of fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border.

"The American people have made it clear that immigration reform should start with better enforcement of the laws already on the books," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Making [E-Verify] permanent and mandatory for federal contractors would be a big step toward meeting the public's expectations."

At the same time, Obama has told immigrant advocacy groups that Congress should try to overhaul the nation's immigration laws within the coming year with the support of business groups and organized labor, all of whom had bitterly opposed the no-match rule.

"The Obama administration is trying to find its voice and put forward a coherent enforcement strategy," said Angela Kelley, immigration analyst at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. "They're looking for solid footing on enforcement so they can move on to what is the unknown territory" of broader legislation addressing the fate of 12 million illegal immigrants and the future flow of foreign workers, she said.

The complexity of navigating a centrist course, however, was revealed yesterday by the mixed reaction to Napolitano's announcement.

As expected, business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hailed the decision to kill the no-match rule. Since October 2007, a federal judge had held up the rule, acknowledging arguments by critics that the Bush administration failed to consider the impact on small businesses and that the rule could lead to discrimination against many legal workers because of millions of errors in the government's Social Security databases.

But Angelo I. Amador, a spokesman for the Chamber, said business groups will continue to fight the contractor requirement in federal court, arguing that Congress never intended to make participation in the worker verification program mandatory.

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