President Bush has ordered federal contractors to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s electronic system for verifying the immigration status of their workers, greatly expanding the reach of the administration’s crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
An executive order, signed by the president on Friday and announced on Monday, requires federal contractors to use the system, known as E-Verify, to check immigration status when they hire new workers or start work under government contracts.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the measure would affect at least several hundred thousand workers a year nationwide. The status checks apply to all workers.
The order expands the E-Verify program, which has been the target of criticism and lawsuits by employers’ groups and advocates for immigrants who say the Social Security database it draws upon to check workers’ status is riddled with errors that could lead to legal workers’ being fired or rejected for employment.
This is the first time that participation in the program, which Congress established in 1996 as a voluntary system, has become mandatory for any large group of employers.
As recently at 2005, the E-Verify system was a pilot program that gave employers a way to confirm that Social Security numbers and immigration information provided by new employees matched federal records. As the administration has stepped up immigration raids at work sites in the last two years, employers’ participation has grown sharply.
About 69,000 employers are now enrolled, up from about 5,900 in 2005, according to federal figures released on Monday. That is still a small fraction of the estimated 7.4 million employers in the United States. Officials estimated that as many as 200,000 contractors would be covered by the new rule.
Mr. Chertoff, at a news conference on Monday in Washington, where he and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez announced the executive order, noted that it covered major weapons and service contractors for the Defense Department, among other employers, as well as employees of subcontractors.
“It will have a huge impact,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a group that favors reduced immigration. “This is the first time the federal government is ensuring that it will not be responsible, directly or indirectly, for hiring illegal aliens.”
Ms. Jenks said concerns about the accuracy of the Social Security database were overblown. She said many errors in the database came from women who had married and failed to notify the Social Security Administration of their name changes, and from immigrants who had become American citizens. These problems could be easily remedied with requests to Social Security or immigration agencies, she said.
But Mike Aitken, director of governmental affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association, said the E-Verify system remained vulnerable to cheating by immigrants who used real identity documents belonging to other people. Without new money and more staff members, Mr. Aitken said, the Social Security Administration could be overwhelmed by inquiries from federal contractors.
A separate rule proposed by the administration that would use the Social Security database to verify immigration status has been blocked by a federal court in San Francisco.
“The critical point is that they should fix the database, and not do an end run around Congress’s intention that the system should be voluntary,” said Lucas Guttentag, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who helped bring the lawsuit.