Following an interesting interview with journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, Fox & Friends used his now-famous story of discovering as a teenager he was an undocumented immigrant to cheerlead for the E-Verify program, which federal government studies have shown has errors and can lead to discrimination.
Leave it to Fox to turn the story of a poster child for the DREAM Act into a “poster child for E-Verify.”
In an unusual series of events, this morning, Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy and guest host Dana Perino interviewed Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently gained national fame by admitting in a New York Times Magazine article that he is an undocumented immigrant. Vargas told his story of being sent to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12, and not discovering he was in the U.S. illegally until he was 16. He and the co-hosts even had a reasonable conversation about the DREAM Act -- a decade-old proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children -- and Perino admitted that “in theory, I think most people could agree with” the DREAM Act.
A little later, however, the co-hosts on the curvy couch were singing a slightly different tune. A segment recounting the interview used Vargas' story to hype the federal E-Verify program, which allows employers to check the immigration status of new hires through government databases. At one point, Doocy said:
DOOCY: What's interesting, though, is one of his bosses at The Washington Post knew he was in the country illegally. And there is a columnist who is writing in The Washington Times today who talks about -- this guy should be a poster child for E-Verify, because if every employer in the country were required to punch in your Social Security number, they would have known that that guy was in this country illegally, and it would clear up a lot of the problems.
During the segment, the words “a poster child for E-Verify” were aired beneath a montage of Vargas' childhood pictures:
Indeed, the Washington Times op-ed that Doocy referenced is titled, “Jose Antonio Vargas: Poster child for why E-Verify must be mandatory,” and claims:
If any of his employers -- The Washington Post, Seattle Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post -- had simply verified his Social Security number, they would have learned that it was invalid for employment. If the Social Security Administration (SSA) had been required to disclose that it was collecting taxes on an account that was not authorized for employment, the government itself could have identified Mr. Vargas as an illegal alien and taken action. But employers are not required to verify Social Security numbers, and government agencies are not required to inform other government agencies that laws are being violated. And so we have an estimated 7 million illegal aliens on payrolls in the United States.
Actually, as it turns out, E-Verify probably would not have caught Vargas. A January 2010 report commissioned by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) found that the program wrongly cleared 54 percent of unauthorized workers -- “primarily due to identity fraud.”
Not only does E-Verify fail to catch unauthorized immigrants who have convincing fake documentation -- as Vargas did -- it also incorrectly labels .7 percent of authorized workers as being unauthorized. While this is indeed a small fraction of workers, if applied to the entire civilian labor force -- currently almost 154 million people -- that would mean 10,759 citizens or legal immigrants would be rejected by the system. And as Media Matters has previously documented, it's currently hard to correct E-Verify's errors. A December 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that "[e]mployees are limited in their ability to identify, access, and correct personal information maintained by DHS that may have led to an erroneous TNC [tentative nonconfirmation]."
And finally, requiring employers to use E-Verify would be costly; in 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated it would cost $3 billion to implement over four years. More important, making the program mandatory would hit small businesses the hardest. According to a January 27 Bloomberg Government piece, in 2008 it cost small businesses “an average of $127 to run a new hire query, compared with $63 for all firms”:
The Department of Homeland Security's web-based E-Verify is, as the agency says on its website, “easy to use, fast, and best of all -- free.” To the extent E-Verify keeps employers from hiring illegal workers, it saves them the cost of fines.
That doesn't mean the use of E-Verify is without cost. It cost the government $247 million to run E-Verify, data compiled by Bloomberg showed. The government has published an 82-page user manual and offers training seminars to become acquainted with E-Verify. Employers have to spend money on training or staff time.
Small businesses estimated they spent a total of $36 million on E-Verify in fiscal 2008, according to the survey. That equates to $81 million in fiscal 2010, adjusting for inflation and usage that more than doubled in those two years.
Businesses with fewer than 500 workers bear the greatest burden because the fixed costs are spread over fewer hires. It cost small businesses that had just enrolled in E-Verify in 2008 an average of $127 to run a new hire query, compared with $63 for all firms. In 2010, those figures would be $147 and $73, respectively, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Large firms are able to spread the set-up and maintenance costs across a larger number of queries, tapping into the program's economies of scale.
It's certainly fair to wonder what Vargas' story means for the future of American employers and the immigration status of their workers -- many are. But it's not fair to shill for mandating use of a federal employment database without mentioning its error rate or costs.