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Small Businesses Need Consideration in Immigration Reform | Commentary

When we hear the words “immigration reform,” we probably assume that any rules coming out of the legislation will apply only to immigrants. Wrong.

Among the key provisions is one that will directly affect all of us, whether we are employers or prospective new employees and whether we are citizens or immigrants.

Under the Senate’s proposed immigration reform bill, every worker who starts a new job would have to be checked against a federal computer database, and if a worker is erroneously disqualified, the boss and that worker face a world of headaches.

This issue is especially critical to the smallest businesses that do not have full-time Human Resources departments dedicated to sorting out database errors, nor the time and money necessary to help citizens and authorized workers sort out these errors.

Imagine the loss of productivity. The corner auto shop with four employees cannot afford to wait weeks for the government system to correct its mistake and allow the special-skilled mechanic to take home a paycheck.

Thankfully, small businesses are not alone in asking for a balanced approach. Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, have teamed up to change the proposed bill so that employers who have fewer than 15 employees would be given more time to comply with the verification system if the system is not meeting a preset accuracy rate. Under this bipartisan proposal, small businesses would have a minimum of eight years to comply with what would become a mandatory E-Verify program.

In Utah, the state’s E-Verify law does not apply to employers with 15 or fewer workers; in Virginia, the threshold is 50 employees; in Georgia, the law targets those with more than 500 workers.

While we support fixing the immigration system, it has to be done in a fair and realistic way. It has to be fair to immigrants and citizens, to workers and employers. Together, we contribute to an economy that will grow even more once all aspiring Americans without proper documents are allowed to legalize and eventually become citizens.

The smallest of small businesses are urging Congress to not force a system that is currently voluntary at the federal level and is prone to errors that affect citizens and immigrants.

The E-Verify system relies on information from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security and is far from perfect. When it is made mandatory, it will fail to confirm thousands of U.S. citizen and authorized workers. And if the present E-Verify error rate was applied nationally, about 156,000 authorized workers would experience an error every year, resulting in possible job losses each time.

The most likely to be tagged are women and immigrants because of issues such as name changes due to marriage, hyphenated last names or names whose origins are from regions of the world that are more likely to be misspelled or have various spellings.

The errors also would disproportionately affect authorized foreign-born workers and naturalized citizens who are at least 20 times as likely to receive an error as a native-born American. This high error rate for foreign-born workers could create an incentive for discrimination against them. That is not the fairness we seek in our immigration system.

For all of these reasons — the discriminatory error rates, the costly and counterproductive effect on small businesses — we urge Congress to be sensible and enact an immigration law that is fair and just.

Emily Tulli is a policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center and testified about the E-Verify program before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security in February.

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