Immigration Enforcement:

Weaknesses Hinder Employment Verification and Worksite Enforcement Efforts

GAO-06-895T: Published: Jun 19, 2006. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 2006.

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The opportunity for employment is one of the most important magnets attracting illegal immigrants to the United States. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 established an employment eligibility verification process and a sanctions program for fining employers for noncompliance. Few modifications have been made to the verification process and sanctions program since 1986, and immigration experts state that a more reliable verification process and a strengthened worksite enforcement capacity are needed to help deter illegal immigration. This testimony is based on GAO's August 2005 report on the employment verification process and worksite enforcement efforts. In this testimony, GAO provides observations on (1) the current employment verification process and (2) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) priorities and resources for the worksite enforcement program and the challenges it faces in implementing that program.

The current employment verification (Form I-9) process is based on employers' review of documents presented by new employees to prove their identity and work eligibility. On the Form I-9, employers certify that they have reviewed documents presented by their employees and that the documents appear genuine and relate to the individual presenting the documents. However, document fraud (use of counterfeit documents) and identity fraud (fraudulent use of valid documents or information belonging to others) have undermined the employment verification process by making it difficult for employers who want to comply with the process to ensure they hire only authorized workers and easier for unscrupulous employers to knowingly hire unauthorized workers with little fear of sanction. In addition, the large number and variety of documents acceptable for proving work eligibility has hindered employer verification efforts. In 1998, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now part of DHS, proposed revising the Form I-9 process, particularly to reduce the number of acceptable work eligibility documents, but DHS has not yet finalized the proposal. The Basic Pilot Program, a voluntary program through which participating employers electronically verify employees' work eligibility, shows promise to enhance the current employment verification process, help reduce document fraud, and assist ICE in better targeting its worksite enforcement efforts. Yet, several weaknesses in the pilot program's implementation, such as its inability to detect identity fraud and DHS delays in entering data into its databases, could adversely affect increased use of the pilot program, if not addressed. The worksite enforcement program has been a relatively low priority under both INS and ICE. Consistent with the DHS mission to combat terrorism, after September 11, 2001, INS and then ICE focused worksite enforcement efforts mainly on detecting and removing unauthorized workers from critical infrastructure sites. Since fiscal year 1999, the numbers of employer notices of intent to fine and administrative worksite arrests have generally declined. According to ICE, this decline is due to various factors, such as the prevalence of document fraud that makes it difficult to prove employer violations. ICE officials told us that the agency has previously experienced difficulties in proving employer violations and setting and collecting fine amounts that meaningfully deter employers from knowingly hiring unauthorized workers. In April 2006, ICE announced a new interior enforcement strategy to target employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers by bringing criminal charges against them, and ICE has reported increases in the number of criminal arrests and indictments since fiscal year 2004. However, it is too early to tell what effect, if any, this new strategy will have on enhancing worksite enforcement efforts and identifying unauthorized workers and their employers.

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