Screening and Enforcement: A Snapshot of Federal Action on Immigration

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In the coming days, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to debate a bill introduced by its chairman, Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, that would require all businesses to use a federal electronic system to verify their employees’ citizenship status. The new measure is the most promising attempt in the current Congress to deal with the vexing matter of immigration, which lately has been tackled most aggressively by the states.

The federal system, known as E-Verify, enjoys the support of some Democrats, including the Obama Administration, and certain corporate business interests. Here’s the gist of how it works: A business puts a current or prospective employee’s social security number, or alien identification number, into an online federal database, which quickly checks the individual’s citizenship status. Businesses with more than 500 employees would have to begin using E-Verify within a year of the law’s enactment, and all businesses, regardless of size, would have to sign up within two years. Already, more than a quarter-million U.S. businesses use E-Verify – in part, to get ahead of the Obama Administration’s heightened prosecution of businesses suspected of hiring undocumented workers. New federal employees and certain government contractors are already required to enter the E-Verify system. And new immigration laws in five states, including South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, now require businesses to use the system.

Smith has suggested making E-Verify mandatory since the system was launched in the mid-1990s, during one of the last major immigration reform efforts. Now, barely a year after joining the government-cutting Tea Party Caucus, he is positioning the bill as a “jobs creator,” arguing it will remove some of the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. workforce – thus making room for American citizens. That line of thinking could resonate at time a when the national unemployment rate hovers around 9%.

But skeptics warn that E-Verify identifies only 46% of illegal resident workers who go through the screening, and some small businesses complain the system is so onerous it will require the hiring of accounts and human resources professionals at a time when profit margins are pinched. The agriculture industry, meanwhile, warns its operations could be crippled. At some farms, 75% of workers are illegal immigrants. While the system’s proponents boast of its 99% accuracy rate, naturalized citizens are thirty times more likely than native-born workers to be subject to an E-Verify error – potentially knocking them out of jobs. Even President Obama expressed concern during a White House press conference last week: “E-Verify can be an important enforcement tool if it’s not riddled with errors…. What I don’t want is a situation in which employers are forced to set up a system that they can’t be certain works.”

Another notable immigration measure before Congress is a new version of the DREAM Act, which would put many undocumented immigrants on the path to legal citizenship. The bill, introduced by Democratic Senators, comes months after the Senate failed to pass a similar measure, and the new iteration is unlikely to pass. But several states, including Maryland, have passed laws that, among other things, allow illegal residents to receive in-state tuition.

In many ways, the pace of the state actions – restrictive immigration laws in Arizona and Georgia, and inclusive measures in Illinois and Maryland – are at odds with what’s happening in Washington. The White House believes that comprehensive immigration reform must be led by Congress. But in the absence of such federal legislative action, the White House is focusing on stepping up administrative enforcement: increasing deportations of illegal immigrants who’ve been convicted of crimes in the U.S. or their home countries. “What they’re struggling with is, ‘how do we enforce the law enough to make clear to everyone that we’re serious about law enforcement, so we can make our larger argument, which is comprehensive immigration reform?” says Steve Camarota, director of research at the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies, in Washington. “They’re in a box.”

The House is expected to vote on the E-Verify bill this summer, but it’s unclear how the Senate will proceed.

Steven Gray is a Washington Correspondent at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @stevengray or on Facebook at Facebook/gray.steven. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.