Screening illegal workers

As Mecklenburg County begins using the federal E-Verify database this week, it joins thousands of employers across the nation in using the Web program to screen out illegal workers.

For years, the county has used a program that checked new employees' personal information against the Social Security database.

E-Verify does that, but also matches the information against the federal immigration database. Supporters say that will help identify any illegal immigrants using stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs.

“The quickest way to stop illegal immigration is to stop illegal employment,” said Bill James, the Republican county commissioner who pushed to have Mecklenburg adopt E-Verify. “I just think it's unfortunate that it took several years of debate, discussion and delay to finally get around to doing this.”

County commissioners unanimously agreed last month to use E-Verify to check the status of its new hires. But so far, some have been reluctant to support James' idea of having all of the county's contractors also use the program.

E-Verify has been around since 1996, and previously went by the name Basic Pilot/Employment Eligibility Verification Program.

In all, about 69,000 employers nationwide – including 1,500 in North Carolina – use E-Verify. Among them: the state of North Carolina and public universities and school systems, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Under a new S.C. law, E-Verify is one of two systems that businesses can use to help check their worker rosters. Two bills currently in the N.C. General Assembly would require all cities and counties, and their contractors, to use E-Verify.

Critics say the program has flaws, and that inaccurate information in the Social Security or immigration databases may result in false reports about people who are actually eligible to work.

The chance for “false-positives” worried some people when the state of North Carolina began to use E-Verify for state agencies and departments, said Dylan Sugiyama, international employment specialist for the Office of State Personnel.

But he said less than 3 percent of new hires have been flagged under the system, and most of those cases have been cleared up.

CMS and other state school systems began using E-Verify in March 2007. Since then, the program found potential problems among eight CMS employees. All either resigned or were fired, the school system said.

It is unclear what impact the program will have in Mecklenburg. County officials said they never received any reports of employees using invalid Social Security numbers under the old system.

Employers are prohibited from using E-Verify on workers who were hired before they started using the new program.

Mecklenburg will use E-Verify starting with an orientation class that starts Wednesday, said Human Resources Director Chris Peek. The county hires about 800 to 1,000 new employees each year.

The change shouldn't be noticed by most would-be county employees. They'll still need to turn in the same documents used to verify employment, such as a driver's license or passport.