AJC – Georgia plans to audit use of hiring tool in limiting illegal immigration | ajc.com

Georgia plans to audit use of hiring tool in limiting illegal immigration  | ajc.com

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5:25 p.m. Friday, January 21, 2011

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia’s new labor commissioner is asking for federal funding to start investigating whether government agencies and contractors here are complying with state laws targeting illegal immigrants.

Commissioner Mark Butler plans to use the money to do at least 100 random audits and post the results on http://www.open.georgia.gov. He estimated those audits could cost $350,000 for the first year and $105,890 for each subsequent year. No timetable has been set for the work yet.

Butler sent his request to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis this week after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked his office what it was doing to comply with a state law that requires him to seek the money. The law went into effect in July, but no one had asked for the federal funding until Butler did this week. Meanwhile, the state has not made any funding available for the audits, a state Labor Department official said.

Butler didn’t take office until this month. Former Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond, who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate last year, said he supports doing the audits and said he looked into funding sources for them last year. But he said he was near the end of his term and decided he would leave the task to Butler.

“I definitely think we need to do” the audits, Butler said in a telephone interview this week. “It is one of the things I campaigned on. I am in full support of it. When we found out that the letter had not been sent to request the funding, we immediately did it.”

Last year, state lawmakers passed a law that calls for the audits. The audits are meant to help the state confirm whether certain government employers and contractors are complying with several parts of the law, including one provision that requires them to use a federal system called E-Verify. The free program uses Social Security numbers and other information to verify a prospective employee’s eligibility to work in the United States.

As of March of last year, only five of Georgia’s 159 counties were not registered to use E-Verify, according to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. An ACCG spokeswoman said the organization contacted those counties last year and urged them to participate. She declined to identify them but said none are in the Atlanta area and all of them are small counties, mostly in South Georgia.

Georgia’s commercial construction industry is also cooperating, said Mark Woodall, the director of governmental affairs for the Georgia branch of the Associated General Contractors of America.

As of Jan. 15, 18,082 employers in Georgia were registered to use the program, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. So far this fiscal year, 141,276 queries from Georgia have been run through the system. The federal agency doesn’t keep state-by-state statistics on how many ineligible workers are flagged by E-Verify. But in fiscal year 2009, only about 2 percent — or 189,230 — of all E-Verify cases nationwide were found to involve people who were not authorized to work here.

Georgia is one of more than a dozen states that require some or all employers to use E-Verify, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A coalition of businesses and immigrant rights groups is suing to stop a more expansive law in Arizona that requires all businesses to use E-Verify, arguing it is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, state legislators are expected to introduce legislation next week that could expand the use of E-Verify in Georgia.

Sen. John Bulloch, who sponsored the legislation last year that called for the state audits, said he was pleased Butler is seeking the federal funding. “I’m glad to know that we have a commissioner that is interested in trying to uphold what the laws are,” said Bulloch, a Republican from Ochlocknee.

Critics say E-Verify has accuracy problems and can be burdensome for businesses. A federally commissioned study released last year says it fails to catch unauthorized workers about 54 percent of the time. Federal officials say they have made substantial progress in improving the system’s accuracy since that report was released.

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