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Budget deal brings E-Verify back, but with a twist

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A contentious piece of immigration policy made it into the final budget deal approved last month.  E-Verify is back, but with a twist. 

The state is again requiring its big contractors to verify the legal status of their employees using a federal database run by the Department of Homeland Security. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty first mandated E-Verify for large government contractors through an executive order in 2008. At that time, he also ordered the state to run its own new hires through E-Verify.

Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, let the requirements lapse last April.

This time, the new law inserted into the budget deal applies only to businesses.

During last month's special session, the Legislature passed a state government bill around 2 a.m. A day later, Minneapolis attorney DeAnne Hilgers found a paragraph buried deep in the omnibus bill that would affect the businesses she advises on immigration issues.

Companies providing more than $50,000 worth of services to the state must enroll in E-Verify to check the work status of new hires. Hilgers is concerned the new requirement, which is already in effect, will catch companies unaware.

"It was not a complete surprise that E-verify was back in play, but I did not expect it to come in the middle of the night with no discussion and no opportunity," she said.

Hilgers said E-Verify costs companies extra time and money beyond what companies are already doing to ensure compliance with immigration law.

Hilgers also found it noteworthy that Pawlenty's executive order required the state to run its own new hires through E-Verify, but the new law applies only to companies doing business with the state:

"Why is it OK for the state to subject contractors to a requirement aimed at bringing employers into compliance, when an employer as large as the state of Minnesota itself is not subject to the same requirement?" she asked.

The state ran into headaches using E-Verify in 2009 when the vendor it hired to feed the names into the federal database insecurely stored private data of state employees — including birthdates and Social Security numbers — on its website. That vendor, Lookout Services of Bellaire Texas, threatened to sue the state for breach of contract.

The Federal Trade Commission investigated the company's practices and earlier this year it announced a 20-year settlement with Lookout Services, in which the company agreed to improve its security practices.

State Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca sponsored the E-Verify bill that is now law. Parry said he pushed for its return because he believes it protects Minnesotans from losing jobs to unauthorized workers.

"We need to know that those working in our businesses, throughout not only the state but the nation, are people who are legally here in the United States," Parry said. "So it was put into the bill, and of course this time the governor passed it into law." 

No one from the governor's office was available to comment on the new E-Verify law.

Parry disagrees with Hilgers that E-Verify poses a burden to companies. He couldn't estimate how much it costs companies to comply, but said he has called business leaders and asked them for their thoughts.

Parry, who owns a Godfather's Pizza franchise in Waseca, doesn't use E-Verify at his business. He said he's not opposed to using E-Verify, but does not think it necessary for his shop.   "All of my employees at this point in time are pretty much high school students," he said. "We know the families, and they've been living in town for quite a few years, and we know the parents and everything so we just haven't used the E-Verify on that."

More than 4,000 Minnesota employers have used the system, and federal officials say use continues to grow.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced this week that workers can now check their own status online for free — in English or in Spanish — so they can correct any mistakes they might find.

"Then if they go to apply for a job and there's any problem with it, they can be prepared with information so they can tell the employer they've tried it before and they are authorized to work," spokesman Tim Counts said.

Counts said 98.3 percent of the people whose names are run through E-Verify are immediately confirmed as eligible to work. Another 1.7 percent of employees are determined ineligible. Officials say 0.3 percent of workers are later confirmed as authorized to work after they contest the error and it is corrected. Only 1.43 percent of workers are deemed ineligible.