Here’s How An Illegal Immigrant Could Slip Through E-Verify Screening

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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  • Christian Bahena Rivera, the illegal immigrant suspected of killing Mollie Tibbetts, was never checked through E-Verify, but he might not have been flagged even if he had.
  • E-Verify is effective in some ways, but it has flaws that can be exploited, according to Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies.
  • Many states including Iowa, where Rivera worked, do not require employers to use E-Verify.

Christian Bahena Rivera, the illegal immigrant who allegedly murdered Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, was never checked through the federal work authorization system E-Verify, but it is not clear he would have been flagged even if he had.

Rivera’s employer, Yarrabee Farms, initially said Tuesday he was cleared to work by E-Verify, which is a government-run program that companies can use to check the work eligibility of potential new hires. The company later walked back that claim, saying that Rivera’s information was instead run through a different system maintained by Social Security Administration and that it checked out.

E-Verify is an electronic system that has been updated several times in its 21-year existence. The current version cross checks an applicant’s identification documents against records from the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security to determine if the person is authorized to work in the U.S.

There is also a photo-matching feature that compares pictures on passports and permanent resident card to photos in DHS records. But the feature doesn’t work for driver’s licenses or other state-issued photo IDs, which are often the primary identification documents presented by job applicants.

For that reason and others, E-Verify is an imperfect if generally effective system for screening out people who don’t have work authorization, according to Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.

“What E-Verify does very well is confirm people who are already work authorized — it does that instantly,” Vaughan told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Where it has trouble is with people who are using the real identification of another person and claiming to be that person.”

In such a situation — what Vaughan calls a “total ID theft package” — a job applicant assumes the name, date of birth and Social Security number of a work-authorized person and obtains a legitimate photo ID, or a high quality forgery, in that name. That appears to be what Rivera did when he applied to work at Yarrabee Farms.

Rivera presented an out-of-state government-issued photo ID and a Social Security card in the same name when he was hired in 2014, said Yarrabee Farms manager Dane Lang, who declined to reveal Rivera’s assumed name.

“Our employee is not who he said he was,” Lang said Wednesday, according to The Associated Press.

Even if Rivera’s assumed identity had been run through E-Verify, it likely would have passed the check if the Social Security number matched that of a work-authorized person.

“There is no database of U.S. citizens that can be used, so we have to rely on the Social Security number,” Vaughan said. “Everyone knows that this is the Achilles’ heel of E-Verify.”

Another factor that limits the effectiveness of E-Verify is that it is not uniformly used from state to state. Federal law requires employers to examine an applicant’s identification documents and keep work authorization records known as I-9 forms on file for government inspection, but there is no national requirement to use E-Verify.

In most states, including Iowa, the use of E-Verify is completely optional, while in others it is only required for government agencies and their contractors. Only four states — Arizona, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina — require all employers to use the system, according to NumbersUSA.

Legislative efforts to pass mandatory national E-Verify have been met with opposition from immigration activists, who say it would push illegal immigrants further into the black labor market, and the agriculture industry, which is heavily dependent on legal and illegal migrant labor. (RELATED: Republicans Push Massive Guest Worker Expansion In DHS Spending Bill)

E-Verify is also dependent on the honesty of the businesses that use the program, whether by choice or by law. There is no enforcement mechanism against employers who are enrolled in the system but submit false identification documents they know will pass screening.

Like any compliance system, E-Verify works best “when everyone has to use it and when employers are doing their due diligence and not looking the other way,” Vaughn said.

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