DeSantis pins hopes on E-Verify in immigration crackdown. Does it work?

The federal online portal that checks the citizenship status of new hires in Florida is growing in use, but there are ways to evade it.
A construction worker prepares a concrete floor for carpet and tile while working at the Tampa Convention Center’s renovation project on June 1 in Tampa.
A construction worker prepares a concrete floor for carpet and tile while working at the Tampa Convention Center’s renovation project on June 1 in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 2

Legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis helped push into law last year restricting migrant labor has become a cornerstone of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.

Some support the measure as necessary for workforce regulation. Others say the new law has exacerbated an already tight labor market.

Yet while the 2023 law is considered one of the nation’s toughest crackdowns on illegal immigration, its effectiveness hinges in part on the reliability of a federal online system that checks the immigration status of employees. The system is called E-Verify.

In 2020, Florida required state employers and contractors to use E-Verify. DeSantis and lawmakers this year required private businesses with 25 or more employees to do the same.

Despite E-Verify’s growing importance, most nonemployers haven’t heard of it.

So what is E-Verify?

Anyone who wants to work is required to fill out an I-9 employment eligibility verification form and provide identification, such as a Social Security number, passport or driver’s license.

That information is uploaded to E-Verify, a web-based portal that allows enrolled employers to confirm the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.

That information is then shared with the U.S. Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security. Employers have three days after an employee’s start to complete verification of their immigration status.

If there’s a mismatch, the employee must prove they have the legal documentation to work. If they can’t do so, they don’t get hired — at least legally.

Employers who don’t comply can get fined. Repeated failures can incur daily penalties. Beginning this upcoming July 1, if the employer fails to use E-Verify three times in a two-year period, the employer will be fined $1,000 per day until those instances are corrected.

How thorough is E-Verify?

Workers without legal status have found ways to circumvent E-Verify, said a local activist interviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. She didn’t want to be identified because she didn’t want to endanger the employment of close friends working with fake IDs.

The activist said applicants can clear the system by using other people’s Social Security numbers, obtaining forged identifications, which can fetch at least $1,200 on the black market, or obtaining a taxpayer identification number to establish a legal corporation or limited liability company.

This bureaucratic maneuver provides legal cover for the worker and the employer who hires them. It works like this: Subcontractors hire the company, which is registered to the worker. Technically, it’s a legal hire because the subcontractor is hiring the company — not the worker.

Hector, a 37-year-old father of two from Guatemala, prefers to use a taxpayer identification number to work with a local subcontractor who has fewer than 25 employees but also handles construction projects with large companies and contractors, allowing Hector to skip having to go through E-Verify. Since 1996, people without a permanent legal status and Social Security number have been able to pay taxes on their income by obtaining a taxpayer identification number through the Internal Revenue Service. Hector, who declined to provide his full name due to his immigration status, moved to Tampa 13 years ago. Since then, he has been working with the same subcontractor.

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In November, a statewide grand jury recommended ending that exemption in a 146-page report, citing concerns about potential system abuse.

“While we recognize a need for flexibility in industrial hiring, it does no good to have a licensing regime which can be so easily manipulated,” the report said. The loophole “provides too many incentives for the unscrupulous to ‘game the system.’”

Anecdotal evidence

While federal agencies have taken steps to improve the accuracy of E-Verify in recent years, there’s strong anecdotal evidence that suggests the system is frequently bypassed.

In September 2022, a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy, working an overnight shift to ensure safety in a construction zone, was run over and killed by Juan Ariel Molina-Salles, a worker without legal authorization operating a front-end loader at a roadwork site on Interstate 275. Molina-Salles was employed by Archer Western, a state-funded contractor.

Molina-Salles faces felony charges for fleeing the scene. He has pleaded not guilty. One of Molina-Salles’ co-workers, Elieser Aurelio Gomez-Zelaya, also in the country without legal authorization, helped him escape and faces state charges as an accessory after the accident. He also pleaded not guilty. Four construction workers in all from that job site — including Molina-Salles and Gomez-Zelaya — have been indicted for using others’ Social Security numbers.

Florida transportation officials, who have paid Archer Western more than $38 million for work since the tragedy, said the contractor appeared to have followed proper hiring procedures and that Molina-Salles and Gomez-Zelaya cleared E-Verify. But for local investigators, such as the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the blame game was more complicated.

“Sometimes, the problem is solely with the person who uses the false documents, and sometimes, the problem is with employers who are deliberately indifferent and do not use due diligence to vet the documents and the person’s true identity,” said Dave Brenn, spokesperson for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

The concept of E-verify is “sound,” said Brenn, but it is not used with fidelity and there is fraud in the process, with individuals using false identities to pass the checks and become unlawfully employed.

“Adherence to the law is important so that people are lawfully employed,” he said.

How much is E-Verify used?

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, over 1 million employers nationwide have enrolled in the program, and an additional 1,500 businesses are signing up every week. In Florida, the most recent data available shows that 83,442 employers are registered in the E-Verify program.

The E-Verify effect

Daniel Castellanos, director of workforce engagement at Resilience Force, a nonprofit that advocates for disaster laborers and construction workers, said elected officials are using migrant workers as pawns.

“They’re taking away jobs, making people feel overwhelmed and exhausted, which drives them to move to other states,” said Castellanos.

Florida is experiencing a severe worker shortage, with only 53 available workers for every 100 job openings, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. To address workforce shortages in Florida and nationwide, 126 national business leaders under the umbrella of the American Business Immigration Coalition signed a letter urging President Joe Biden to expand immigrant work permits.

The governor’s office did not respond to emailed questions about E-Verify and its impact. But Andrew Good, state government relations director of the nonprofit NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration laws, called E-Verify “a truly excellent system.”

Good said E-Verify should be required for all new hires in every state and nationwide. He believes the only reason not to require it is that some “unscrupulous” employers want to continue hiring workers without legal permanent status.

“The E-Verify system is sound, but we won’t maximize its value until we enact sensible policy to use it across the board,” Good said.

The implementation of E-Verify may entail initial setup costs, training expenses and ongoing administrative burdens for businesses, said Andrea Curtis, human resources and payroll manager at Tampa’s Matcon Construction Co.

She said E-Verify can be effective, but has raised concerns about its accuracy and the risk of errors, such as false positives (legal workers flagged as unauthorized) or false negatives (unauthorized workers cleared as legal). Glitches and delays could also disrupt the hiring process and potentially cause inconvenience.

“Additionally, E-Verify’s effectiveness may depend on the overall enforcement of immigration laws,” Curtis said.