Arizona shows pitfalls in Romney’s proposed national E-Verify program

At Wednesday night's GOP debate, Mitt Romney called Arizona a "model" for immigration enforcement, singling out the state's 2007 law mandating that all employers use the national E-Verify database when hiring workers. He promised to institute a national E-Verify law if elected. "You do that, and just as Arizona is finding out, you can stop illegal immigration," he said. Last May, the state defeated the Chamber of Commerce's suit against the law in the Supreme Court.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, Romney's adviser on immigration issues, helped write Arizona's E-Verify law as well as Arizona's 2010 SB1070 law (Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act). At the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Kobach touted what's happened in Arizona as proof that "self-deportation"—Romney's chosen immigration strategy—is working. "People started self-deporting by the tens of thousands," after E-Verify passed, he said, according to the Hill.

Romney and Kobach are right that, on at least one level, the law has had a significant impact in Arizona. A study published last year by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that about 92,000, or 17 percent, of the Hispanic non-citizen population of Arizona left the state in the year after the state passed E-Verify legislation; most of those who moved were probably illegal immigrants. PPI researchers told Yahoo News that the law—not the recession, or highly-publicized raids targeting illegal immigrants—was the most likely cause of the exodus.

Yet while PPI's research helps predict what might happen if an E-Verify system were implemented nationally, as Romney hopes, it exposes some of the less-desirable side-effects of the law as well. In Arizona, the non-citizen Hispanic workers who did stay behind increasingly shifted into a shadow economy, said Magnus Lofstrom, a co-author of the study. The self-employment rate among non-citizen Hispanics in Arizona nearly doubled post-E-Verify, and a higher proportion of people who said they were self-employed lived in poverty and lacked health insurance.

Lofstrom told Yahoo News that the informal economy would grow significantly nationwide if a national E-Verify system were established. While illegal immigrants in Arizona were able to move to other states to find work, their choices would be significantly limited if E-Verify were implemented nationally; the only real (and unlikely) option would be to for undocumented workers to move to another country. In other words, we'd be much more likely to see an increase in informal employment rather than a massive movement among illegal immigrants to "self-deport."

What would that mean? An increase in informal employment among the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants would result in lower tax revenues--since non-self employed illegal immigrants are more likely to have taxes withheld from their paychecks--higher poverty levels among illegal immigrants, and a higher potential for employer abuse, said Lofstrom. (Right now, America has a relatively small shadow economy compared to other developed countries, like Italy.)

Another snag with instituting a national E-Verify program is that the current system cannot detect identity fraud. A 2009 government-commissioned study found that E-Verify only flags illegal immigrants half the time, because it can't detect when a worker is using documents that belong to someone else. (Employers enter in Social Security or alien registration numbers, birthdates and names of employees into the database, which figures out whether they match the federal immigration and Social Security databases.) To combat this fraud, Romney has said he supports biometric ID cards for immigrants that would contain a fingerprint or other identifying device that clears them for work. Romney hasn't explicitly said that every person in America should have this card--an idea that many libertarians object to. But without being adopted universally, undocumented people could still use false documents. (The Romney team had not responded to requests for comment from Yahoo News by the time this article was published.) Mandatory national ID cards have played a starring role in failed bipartisan immigration reform proposals in Congress over the past few years.

In Arizona, there is no state-wide system to make sure businesses are using E-Verify. Rather, individual citizens are asked to expose employers that they suspect of hiring illegal immigrants to their local district attorneys. Yet district attorneys were not granted the power to subpoena businesses that are suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, and some DAs have complained that the law is an unfunded mandate for their offices, according to Judy Gans, immigration policy director at Arizona University's Udall Center. Only three businesses were prosecuted under the law in the first three years after it passed.

But business owners still worry that E-Verify's high error rate could leave them open to prosecution. Republicans in Arizona's state Senate are now moving to change the law at their request. Republican state senator Jerry Lewis, who defeated anti-illegal immigration hardliner Russell Pearce last year in a historic recall election, is co-sponsoring a bill with seven other Republican senators to provide "safe harbor" to businesses that use E-Verify but still accidentally hire unauthorized workers.

Lewis, who is backing Romney, told Yahoo News that he is not a fan of Kobach's draft immigration laws.

"Does Kobach's presence in Romney's campaign create a difficulty for him? I believe it does," Lewis said. "I think people want a real solution and I don't think the legislation that has been drafted by Kobach is a real solution." Lewis said the immigration laws "polarize people."

Lewis added that he thinks Romney will eventually agree with him that making all illegal immigrants leave the country is not a solution to the country's immigration problems.

"I think he'll realize that there is a place for a real solution to the issue, and it's not just let's get everybody that's undocumented out of the country," Lewis said.

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