Job applicant

A jobseeker fills out an application on Wednesday, June 13, 2018, during the City of Gary, Indiana, and HIRE program job fair at the Gary South Shore RailCats Steel Yard. (Kyle Telechan/Post Tribune/TNS)

A federal system that allows employers to check the immigration status of potential new employees isn’t working this week, a casualty of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

The shutdown of E-Verify should in theory bring hiring anywhere in Alabama to a halt, because of a 2011 law that requires employers to verify the immigration status of every new hire.

But it won’t, researchers and public officials say, because businesses were ignoring the law already.

“They’re not aware of the law, and there’s no way to prosecute someone for failure to E-Verify,” said state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur.

Created in the 1990s, E-Verify is a database employers can use to check new employees against Social Security and other records to determine whether they’re eligible to work in the United States.

For more than a decade, the federal government has required its contractors and vendors to use the system. Immigration hawks have long argued that E-Verify checks should be mandatory for every employer, to end the hiring of workers who are in the country illegally.

In 2011, Alabama did exactly that, setting up an E-Verify requirement as part of the much-debated Beason-Hammon Act. One of the toughest immigration laws in the country, the bill allowed police to arrest non-citizens who couldn’t provide proof of residency and set up misdemeanor charges for people who give rides to undocumented immigrants.

Courts quickly gutted the law, rejecting most of those criminal charges as unconstitutional. The E-Verify requirement remains in effect, according Mike Lewis, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, who corresponded with the Star via email Thursday.

Employers who tried to use the system this week, however, found a message at the top of the E-Verify website: “Due to a lapse in federal funding ... E-Verify services are not available.”

The shutdown came about because of another high-profile debate about immigration. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for $5 billion to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. A Republican-run Congress didn’t give him that funding in 2018, and a concession seems even less likely after a Democratic-majority House was sworn in Thursday. The impasse has halted funding for several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, which runs E-Verify.

Jon Hegeman of White Plains said the E-Verify shutdown hasn’t caused him a problem yet. Hegeman employs dozens of workers from Mexico, on work visas, at the height of the growing season at his greenhouses in White Plains and Centre.

Hiring is slow in winter, he said, and has never been as fast as most people think it is.

“We really don’t get that many people looking for a job in agriculture,” he said.

Hegeman said the E-Verify requirement cut his workforce in half in 2012, when it first came into force. Now he submits every employee to E-Verify, he said, largely because he wants to comply with federal visa rules.

The Star’s attempts to reach several other local employers about E-Verify were unsuccessful.

Orr, the state senator, said the E-Verify part of the law is very much in force — but a significant number of employers simply don’t bother to use it.

“I think it’s mostly ignorance,” he said. “People aren’t aware of the law.”

Orr says only 60 percent of the state’s new hires are vetted through E-Verify. That number meshes with the latest estimate by the Cato Institute, a think tank that has opposed E-Verify requirements.

“What this tells us is that nobody really cares about enforcing an E-Verify requirement,” said Alex Nowrasteh, the Cato analyst who assembled the numbers.

Nowrasteh said Cato made Freedom of Information Act requests for E-Verify numbers from every state, and matched them against numbers on newly hired workers from the U.S. Census bureau.

Not every researcher agrees with that approach — but researchers do seem to agree that no state, even states that require E-Verify by law, comes close to 100 percent compliance.

“The share of employers who were using E-Verify in Alabama was about 40 percent in 2015,” said Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida who has studied the effects of E-Verify. She said she counts the numbers by employer because it’s nearly impossible to tell whether every employee in the state has been vetted through E-Verify.

“It would cost a lot to monitor it,” Zavodny said. “I don’t even know how you would monitor it.”

State officials expressed similar concerns to The Star in 2012, when the state was planning to hand over E-Verify compliance to the state Department of Homeland Security. Officials at the time estimate the cost of the work at $4 million, more than three quarters of the agency’s budget.

Homeland Security was later folded into the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, an umbrella agency covering various state law enforcement arms. ALEA still maintains a webpage on E-Verify at immigration.alabama.gov. There’s a number for employers to call for E-Verify help.

A call to the number Thursday yielded no answer after 15 minutes on hold.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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