Topic: Trade and Immigration

E-Verify: What’s Going on with the 5.3%?

In a recent post on E-Verify, the system for conducting federal immigration background checks on American workers hired to new jobs, I criticized an assumption on the part of DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker that the 5.3% of people who receive “final nonconfirmations” from the system are illegal immigrants:

Baker’s conclusion that the 5.3% of workers finally nonconfirmed are illegal workers is without support. The statistic just as easily could show that the 5.3% of law-abiding American-citizen workers are given tentative nonconfirmations, and they find it impossible to get them resolved. More likely, some were dismissed by employers, never informed that there was a problem with E-Verify; some didn’t have the paperwork, the time, or the skills to navigate the bureaucracy; and some were illegal workers who went in search of work elsewhere, including under the table.

Yesterday at a meeting of the DHS Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee, a new data point opened a small window onto the situation of the 5.3%. To review, 94.2% of the workers submitted to the system are confirmed as eligible for work within 24 hours. Of the 5.8% tentatively nonconfirmed, .5% successfully contest their nonconfirmations, leaving us with 5.3% who receive final nonconfirmations for reasons yet unknown.

Staff of the DHS’ U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services bureau reported yesterday that they had recently added a “doublecheck” on tentative nonconfirmations, asking employers to review the data they had entered for errors. During the two months this has been in place, it has lowered the tentative nonconfirmation rate by 30%. That’s right - 30% of the tentative nonconfirmations had been caused by employers’ fat fingers. (“Fat fingers” is not a knock on employers’ fitness - it’s a techie term for data entry errors.)

If we assume that the figures recited above are from a period before the new fat-finger doublecheck, the 5.8% tentative nonconfirmation rate should have dropped 1.74% since the double-check was implemented. Next, assume (generously) that all of the .5% successfully contesting their tentative nonconfirmations were part of this cohort - the victims of employers’ fat fingers. This leaves 1.24% of workers submitted to E-Verify during this period who were eligible to work but victims of employers’ data entry errors - and who failed to contest their nonconfirmations.

There is plenty of room for error in this extrapolation, and I’ll happily publish refinements or corrections to what I’ve written here, but it looks like more than 1 in 100 employees are tentatively nonconfirmed by E-Verify and go on to final nonconfirmation even though they are eligible to work under the immigration laws. That’s a huge percentage considering that millions of Americans’ employability is on the line. The burden is on DHS and other proponents of electronic employment eligibility verification to figure out what’s going on and to fix it.

E-Verify is not ready for prime time, and we wouldn’t want it even if it was.

Spending Money to Restrain Economic Growth

Sayeth the GAO:

Although DHS has not prepared official cost figures, USCIS officials estimated that a mandatory E-Verify program could cost a total of about $765 million for fiscal years 2009 through 2012 if only newly hired employees are queried through the program and about $838 million over the same 4-year period if both newly hired and current employees are queried. USCIS has estimated that it would need additional staff for a mandatory E-Verify program, but was not yet able to provide estimates for its staffing needs. SSA has estimated that implementation of a mandatory E-Verify program would cost a total of about $281 million and require hiring 700 new employees for a total of 2,325 additional workyears for fiscal years 2009 through 2013.

No Need for a General Election; Obama Already Has Mandate

An article [$] today in CongressDaily AM outlines the plans of trade-skeptic congressional Democrats wishing to formalize that “time-out” on trade we’ve heard so much about during the Democratic primary campaign.

A bill introduced yesterday (H.R 6180 and its companion S.3083) would slow down the process of approving new trade agreements by requiring the GAO to review existing agreements and judge them not, as logic would seem to dictate, according to the standard of increasing trade, but against the domestic policy standards contained in the bill:

The bill would require GAO to review existing trade deals by June 10, 2010, and an analysis of how the deals stack up against labor, environmental and safety standards enumerated in the bill.

If gaps are found by GAO, the president would be required to submit renegotiation plans for current trade pacts before negotiating new ones and congressional consideration of pending trade pacts. Committees of jurisdiction would then review the renegotiation plans.

According to congressional Democrats, Senator Obama’s win in the Democratic primary is justification enough for introducing a bill that mirrors his plans. Those plans include, yes, loading up trade agreements with possibly deal-killing standards and, at least judging by Senator Obama’s voting record so far, very little new trade liberalization (details here).

If that sounds like a bad idea, it is music to the ears of some members of Congress. Here’s a quote from Rep. Michael Michaud (D, ME):

“I feel very comfortable with Sen. Obama’s position on trade; he understands the devastation that trade has caused to the American people and how flawed these trade deals are.”

We at Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies would refute that. Strenuously.

An E-Verify Triple: That’s a De-De-Debunker

Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker has weighed in with another post on the DHS “Leadership Journal” blog about the E-Verify system for conducting federal immigration background checks on all people hired in the United States. He takes on three supposed myths about E-Verify.

Myth 1: That E-Verify is burdensome for employers.

Baker says that E-Verify is a bit less burdensome than ordering books for the first time on Amazon.com. It would be fun to actually run that test. But just for starters, here’s the 600-word form you have to read and fill out before you even register as an employer. The word count of the Memorandum of Understanding you have to read and sign is well over 3,000 words - eight pages of legalistic instructions. Jeff Bezos! Call your bankruptcy lawyer!

Buying a book from Amazon.com doesn’t require you to check someone else’s documents, doesn’t put you at risk of violating federal law, and so on, and so on. These just aren’t comparables.

Baker’s most interesting evidence? An anonymous commenter on one of his earlier posts who just gushes about E-Verify. In fact, the first two comments on that post - both anonymous - come within nine minutes of each other. One praises E-Verify’s ease of use. The other comes from the “worker” perspective - just like a PR flack would want to have covered. Here’s the actual quote: “This E-verify system will let you know if you have a mistake that you need to correct before it is just too late for you!” So very like an infomercial …

But let’s cut to the chase: Regulators in agencies across the federal government are constantly coming with burdens on employers. Oh, they claim that each one is wafer thin, yes. But the cumulative results are disgusting.

Myth, the second: That E-Verify is discriminatory.

Critics “conjure up evil employers who disfavor certain ethnic groups when they apply government hiring rules,” says Baker. That’s not quite it. Unfortunately, rational employers would disfavor certain ethnic groups. Here’s how I put it in my paper “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration”:

With illegal immigrants today coming predominantly from Spanish-speaking countries south of the U.S. border, identity fraud and corruption attacks on the EEV system would focus largely on Hispanic surnames and given names. Recognizing that Hispanic employees—even native-born citizens—are more often caught up in identity fraud and tentative nonconfirmation hassles, employers would select against Hispanics in their hiring decisions.

But this is against the rules, protests Baker. And it’s true that the program’s rules forbid this behavior. But Baker is thinking quite a bit like the economist in this old joke:

An economist, a physicist, and an engineer are trapped on a desert island and all they have to eat is a can of baked beans. The engineer first tries to open the can by putting at an angle to the sun to try and burn a hole in it. That doesn’t work. So the physicist gets a rock and does some calculations as to how much force he would have to hit the can with to get it open. No luck. Finally, the economist turns to them both and says, “You’re doing it all wrong! What we need to do is assume we have a can opener …”

“If there are rules against it, it won’t happen.” Friends, avoid South Seas adventures with economist Stewart Baker.

Myth 3: That E-Verify does nothing about identity theft.

E-Verify does something about identity theft. You have to have a matching name and Social Security Number pair to get through the system. That makes defrauding employers harder. It will also make identity theft more profitable and more common if E-Verify goes national. Again, from my paper:

Faced with the alternative of living in poverty and failing to remit wealth to their families, illegal immigrants would deepen the modest identity frauds they are involved in today. Their actions would draw American citizens, unfortunately, into a federal bureaucratic identity vortex.

But Baker is talking about in-system fraud, and the idea of accumulating more biometric information into a national identity system. Currently, a “photo screening tool” in E-Verify shows employers the picture that was printed on DHS-issued permanent resident cards and employment authorization documents. This suppresses forgery of cards, while it may lull employers into checking the card against the computer screen - not against the worker. Whatever the case, DHS is seeking access to passport photos from the State Department and driver license photos from state governments across the country so that it can knit together a national biometric database. (Pictures are biometrics - relatively crude ones, of course. When having a picture database fails to secure against illegal immigration, they’ll move to stronger ones.)

Baker is exaggerating to say that the photo screening tool is a significant step in countering identity fraud. It’s only in very limited use, the system itself would promote identity fraud, and countering identity fraud this way requires a national biometric database, with all the privacy ills that entails. This is why we wouldn’t want E-Verify even if it was ready for prime-time.

Three myths debunked? Or three debunkings de-debunked? Secretary Baker’s commentaries are welcome because they illustrate key points of disagreement, allowing you, the American public, a fuller view into the issues at stake.

The E-Verify Debate as it Stands in Kansas

Here’s a good article in the Wichita Eagle on the debate over E-Verify, with particular reference to the state of Kansas, where the legislature recently considered requiring employers to use this system for a federal background check on all new hires.

My paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” is here.

Myth-Busting Fortunes of the Steel Industry

Today, the Washington Post finally got around to publishing a story about the enviable state of America’s most iconic manufacturing industry – the steel industry.

Steel prices are at record highs, surging more than 70 percent in the past year alone. Industry profits have set new records in recent years. Return on investment has been astronomical. The American Stock Exchange’s Steel Index increased 49 percent per year from 2003 to 2007, as compared to 13 percent per year for the S&P 500. Foreign demand continues to be white hot, while demand from U.S. steel-using industries continues to be stronger-than-expected in a slowing economy.

U.S. steel industry shipments of 106 million tons in 2007 exceeded the industry’s 1970 shipments by 16 percent. Output per worker has soared: in the 1970s producing a ton of steel required 12 man-hours; today it requires 1.2 man-hours. Several billion dollars of new green-field investments are being made by foreign and domestic producers in U.S. production capacity, which is a sure sign that those who know the industry best have faith in America’s manufacturing future.

We at Cato have been reporting about the high-flying steel industry for several years now (here, here, and here), and about the record performance of the U.S. manufacturing sector overall (here and here). But the mainstream media (with a few exceptions) has been silent about these incredible successes, while Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the Congressional Steel Caucus, other members of Congress, Lou Dobbs, the United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for American Manufacturing, and other entities whose agendas require an environment of public fear have had carte blanche to mislead and deceive the public about trade and manufacturing.

The preference in the media for exceptional doom and gloom stories about job loss and manufacturing ghost towns over factual stories about the real state of manufacturing has definitely taken its toll. Opinion polls show irrational levels of antipathy toward trade and globalization among the American public, which simply belies the facts.

I suppose it would be wrong to blame the media for pursuing a proven formula: fear and drama sell advertising. But maybe the commoditization of fear and drama will lead more news media to discover niche markets, like the market for quaint, factual stories couched in perspective.

De-Debunker: Low-Hanging Fruit

Another day, another debunking.

DHS Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker has another effort to debunk information about the E-Verify program on DHS’ Leadership Journal blog. In this case, it’s “Debunking the ‘E-Verify Capacity Problem.’”

Critics say that only 60 thousand employers are registered with E-Verify, while there are 6 million employers in the U.S. But this is an example of using an accurate statistic to produce a misleading result. Many of those 6 million employers won’t hire a single worker this year. Others will hire thousands. What counts is how many individual hires the system can handle… . Based on a recent load testing, the system has the capacity to handle 240 million queries a year. That’s three to four times the number of people who are usually hired in a given year.

Fair enough, and frankly I hadn’t been aware of there being an argument about a “capacity” problem with E-Verify’s servers or data systems.

Running a Web search on “E-Verify capacity” to see what the capacity argument is, I found little other than a Government Accountability Office report which says the following:

A mandatory E-Verify program would necessitate an increased capacity at both U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and SSA to accommodate the estimated 7.4 million employers in the United States… . Although DHS has not prepared official cost figures, USCIS officials estimated that a mandatory E-Verify program could cost a total of about $765 million for fiscal years 2009 through 2012 if only newly hired employees are queried through the program and about $838 million over the same 4-year period if both newly hired and current employees are queried… . . SSA has estimated that implementation of a mandatory E-Verify program would cost a total of about $281 million and require hiring 700 new employees for a total of 2,325 additional workyears for fiscal years 2009 through 2013.

That’s a very different kind of capacity - and very expensive. I have written here before about a Social Security Administration workers’ union official who pointed out the lacking capacity at SSA to handle national E-Verify.

The difference in these kinds of capacity reveals an inference in my and others’ criticism of E-Verify that Baker and the folks at DHS may be missing. I may have been too obscure again yesterday when I wrote, “Just because you have a glass coffee table, that doesn’t mean you can build a glass sundeck.”

The class of businesses currently using E-Verify is particularly proactive about not hiring illegal immigrants – either because they are naturally fastidious or because they have been subject to enforcement actions that practically or legally require it. They may self-select against hiring potential illegal immigrants – perhaps avoiding native or fluent Spanish speakers, for example. If their motivation is avoiding trouble with the feds, these employers may not tell workers about tentative nonconfirmations, getting rid of them under other pretenses. Or they may prescreen workers using E-Verify before even hiring them. (Sure, E-Verify fan, tell yourself it’s against the rules - like driving over the speed limit is against the rules.) This all makes it look to folks like Stewart Baker like they’re catching illegal workers.

For what they’re worth, these employers are the low-hanging fruit for the E-Verify program. This is the best E-Verify will get. The rest of the nation’s employers, and the workers they hire, will produce higher error rates and new, more difficult problems.

The capacity of E-Verify’s databases and servers may be fine. The capacity of the various federal agencies to sort out the results of national E-Verify – not so good.