Most Arizona employers aren't using E-Verify
by Jahna Berry - Jul. 28, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Despite a state law requiring businesses to verify that all new employees are legal workers, only about half of new hires in Arizona have been vetted by a federal system that checks their status.
About a third of the state's estimated 100,000 employers have signed up for the E-Verify program.
The state's employer-sanctions law, which took effect more than two years ago, requires employers to use the free online federal system to check the legal status of all new employees. Those who don't risk losing their business licenses if they employ an illegal worker.
But federal employment data and figures from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services requested by The Arizona Republic suggest hundreds of thousands of workers have been hired without being checked against federal records.
Any new hire made starting Jan. 1, 2008, that was not checked against E-Verify would be a violation of the law known as the Legal Arizona Workers Act.
During E-Verify's most recent full fiscal year, which ended in September 2009, Arizona employers made more than 1.3 million new hires but ran just 730,000 E-Verify checks.
Some businesses would prefer not to check the legal status of their workers. Many others probably intend to hire only legal workers and aren't bothering with the program.
Despite the bleak economy, employers have continued to add workers in the state, making nearly 915,000 hires during the first nine months of 2009, according to data from U.S. immigration officials and labor data on the U.S. Census Bureau website. Arizona's overall job growth has been negative because employers are cutting jobs at a faster rate. The state has lost 11 percent of its jobs since the recession began.
The E-Verify scofflaws likely are small businesses, so there is little chance they ever will be caught, business owners and employment experts say.
The U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear arguments on the constitutionality of the sanctions law. A ruling isn't expected until next year. The data shed some light on the impact of the employer-sanctions law in advance of a tough new Arizona immigration law that will take effect Thursday.
"All businesses, to protect themselves against being charged with a violation of the law, should utilize E-Verify to determine the immigration status of their employees," said Leesa Berens Morrison, a special assistant in the Maricopa County Attorney's Office who handles immigration issues.
County Attorney Rick Romley plans to form a business-advisory group this week to help educate owners about what's required under state immigration laws, Morrison said.
"Part of our program is to help E-Verify grow," she said.
Lawmakers who backed the Legal Arizona Workers Act hoped to reduce the number of undocumented workers who come to Arizona. The state has an estimated 460,000 now, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Penalizing businesses that hire them was part of the strategy. Without the chance to hold a job, migrants' incentive to live here drops, with the likelihood growing that they will leave the state.
The law allows county attorneys to file civil lawsuits against employers who knowingly or intentionally hire illegal workers.
No one enforces whether employers are using E-Verify. But employers found to have knowingly hired illegal workers could see their business licenses suspended or revoked.
As of early July, 34,327 Arizona firms have signed a memorandum of understanding to use E-Verify, according to federal figures.
Officials from the Arizona Chamber of Business and Industry and the Arizona Small Business Association estimate that there are about 100,000 to 110,000 Arizona businesses that have employees.
Data from U.S. immigration officials and Census Bureau website labor data show far more hires than checks against the system:
• Arizona employers made 822,157 employee checks through E-Verify from Oct 1, 2007, to Sept. 30, 2008. During that same time, Arizona companies made about 2 million new hires.
The census numbers represent total new hires, including people who were hired to replace workers lost to attrition.
• Arizona employers made 732,455 E-Verify checks from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, 2009. During that same period, Arizona companies hired 1.3 million people.
• About 700,000 Arizona queries have been made on E-Verify from Oct. 1, 2009, to July. Arizona's 2010 hiring data aren't available from the census yet.
Some experts say the figures show that most employers aren't following the law.
E-Verify statistics can be impacted by a number of factors, said Marie Sebrechts. a spokeswoman for the CIS.
Businesses may not sign up because they don't plan to make any hires soon. If few companies are hiring, there are fewer hires for E-Verify to check, said Kristen Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Small Business Association.
But Julie Pace, a Phoenix immigration attorney, said the numbers should be higher.
Within the past 15 months, new rules for federal contractors took effect that require some companies that handle federal projects to run all their workers through the E-Verify, not just new hires. Some large employers working on federal stimulus projects in Arizona have had to vet hundreds of workers on E-Verify, Pace said.
"You'd think the queries number would be higher, given all the federal contract jobs, and it's actually less," Pace said.
Though employers have run more than 2.2 million checks, the number of verified employees is smaller because of the likelihood of multiple checks. Employers are supposed to check after a job offer has been extended. But if that candidate doesn't work out, the company may run another check on another candidate, which means that two checks were made for one hire.
Since the law took effect in 2008, no business has lost its license because of the law. Two Maricopa County businesses have faced sanctions.
The Sheriff's Office has conducted a series of worksite raids as part of sanctions enforcement. The raids resulted mostly in the arrests of undocumented workers.
On Tuesday, the Sheriff's Office conducted its 37th raid and arrested five people at a Phoenix business. Since the raids began, more than 400 employees have been arrested; 278 have faced identity-theft charges.
Immigration attorney Pace said that if a business doesn't sign up for E-Verify, chances are slim it will be caught.
The federal officials don't enforce Arizona's employer-sanctions law and state officials don't track who's signed up for E-Verify, she said.
Few using it
A lawmaker who co-sponsored the employer-sanctions law was surprised that so few businesses were using E-Verify.
"I would be interested in looking into those numbers," Sen. Thayer Verschoor said.
It may be time to consider better ways to enforce the law and to reach out to business owners to educate them about the rules, he said.
If a business uses E-Verify and is investigated for violating the law, there is little chance it would lose its business license, he said. It's "risky business" for companies to duck the federal program because their livelihood is on the line, Verschoor said.
Many of the companies that haven't signed up are probably small businesses, said Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
"Most of those companies are probably mom-and-pop-type operations," said Hamer, who downplayed the E-Verify sign-up numbers. He speculated that larger employers with human-resources departments participate at higher rates.
Mike Castillo, owner of PostalMax of Scottsdale, said the program isn't user-friendly for small-business owners. Castillo signed up for E-Verify in 2008 but didn't use it because his parcel-services business didn't have any turnover.
Recently, he wanted to hire a part-time worker, but a technical glitch made it difficult for Castillo's human-resources contractor to file the paperwork with the CIS.
The federal agency sent a form in a file format that was difficult to open, and it took a few days to iron the problem out, said Castillo.
If you don't have the luxury of a human-resources staff, E-Verify takes time away from your core business, he said.
"I don't think people are going to really embrace E-Verify," Castillo said.
Republic reporter JJ Hensley contributed to this article.