The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 4, 2009

Oklahoma: State defends law aimed at illegal immigrants


The Associated Press

DENVER — Attorneys for Oklahoma went before a federal appeals court Monday to defend a law that requires companies doing business with the state to use a federal database to verify their workers and contractors are eligible to work in the U.S.

Sections of the law were blocked by a federal judge in Oklahoma in June after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others challenged it, saying the “E-Verify” program is unreliable and unfairly imposes penalties on employers.

State attorneys told a three-judge panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Monday that Congress didn’t bar states from requiring employers to use E-Verify.

The appeals court judges did not indicate when they might rule.

The electronic system allows employers to quickly verify a worker’s eligibility through a computer with an Internet connection using information from an I-9 form, which is a required from everybody working in the U.S.

“Isn’t it a lot simpler” to used the computer system instead of a paper form that takes days to mail, Judge Paul J. Kelly quizzed Carter Phillips, an attorney representing the chamber. “Isn’t it the same database?”

“I don’t understand what the big problem is, quite frankly,” Kelly said.

Congress created E-Verify as part of an immigration bill in 1996 as four-year pilot program in five states, but later expanded it to all 50 states in 2003. Most states don’t require employers to use it.

“Congress did not speak to what states could do,” argued Dan Weitman, Oklahoma assistant attorney general.

The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit last year upheld Arizona’s law that made E-Verify a requirement for all employers, ruling that “Congress could have, but did not, expressly forbid state laws from requiring ‘E-Verify’ participation.”

The chamber and other groups that include the American Civil Liberties Union, labor unions and advocates for immigrants argue that Congress chose not to make E-Verify a requirement because it’s flawed.

“It’s rife with mistakes, which goes to the whole question as to why Congress hasn’t made it mandatory,” Phillips argued.

Kelly later told Phillips: “How can you claim an injury when the clear intent of Congress is to not employ illegal workers?”

Laws similar to Oklahoma’s are in place or being phased in in seven other states, according to the National Immigration Law Center, or NILC, an immigrant advocacy group. Those states are Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Rhode Island and Utah.

Three states — Arizona, Mississippi, and South Carolina — require all employers to use E-Verify while two states — Idaho and North Carolina — require it only of public agencies, according to NILC.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-illegal immigration group, defended the system in a phone interview Monday.

“The people who want to perpetuate the status quo don’t want a system that will hold them accountable,” Mehlman said. “The reason they’re hiring illegal immigrants is that they’re benefiting from it.”

Some 87,000 employers — about 1 percent of the nation’s 7.4 million employers — are enrolled in the program, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which jointly maintains the database with the Social Security Administration.

Surveys cited by the NILC found that employers did not find the system easy or efficient and found error rates as high as 13 percent.

“It looks like an easy fix, but what policy-makers don’t realize is that there are very serious issues for employees and businesses,” Tyler Moran, employment policy director for NILC, said in a phone interview.

Other parts of Oklahoma’s immigration law were not affected by the federal judge’s temporary injunction and went into effect in November. Those parts require proof of citizenship to receive certain government benefits and outlawing knowingly transporting illegal immigrants.