Imagine there was a free program that could guarantee for employers a legal workforce and eliminate illegal immigration. Would you favor such a system? Yes or no? This is essentially how all polls attempt to gauge the popularity of E-Verify, the electronic national identification system included in many immigration reform proposals. Then, the system’s proponents exclaim, “Americans demand E-Verify!”
Last year, for example, when Rep. Lamar Smith proposed mandating E-Verify for all employers, the electronic national identification system used to catch unauthorized workers, he cited a Pulse Opinion Research poll that found that just 11 percent of Americans opposed a mandatory E-Verify system. Of course, most Americans do not know what E-Verify is, so how did this poll explain E-Verify?
There is a federal program known as E-Verify which allows employers to electronically verify the Social Security numbers of the people they hire to ensure that they are eligible to work in the U.S. Do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the use of an electronic system to verify that all workers hired in the United States are legally eligible to work here?
This poll is similar to a poll finding support for the president’s stimulus packages that asked, “Do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose providing jobs for Americans during this time of economic uncertainty?” What person would oppose that? Similarly, how many Americans would oppose a system that quickly and inexpensively allows employers to “verify all workers hired in the United States are legally eligible to work here”? Not very many.
Never mind that E-Verify does not actually do this, that it fails to catch unauthorized workers 54 percent of the time, that it would initially deem ineligible hundreds of thousands of authorized workers, and that it requires employers to hire, train, and pay unauthorized workers during appeals, but even if it did all those things with perfect accuracy, Americans would still oppose it if only they were aware of the costs.
E-Verify opponents like myself had always suspected this to be the case, but now we have proof. A recent Reason-Rupe poll asked respondents, “Would you favor or oppose this requirement [E-Verify] if business owners have to pay $150 to verify the legal status of every worker they are considering hiring?” The $150 reference is to a government survey of employers done by the independent research firm Westat, which found that small businesses paid on average $147 per new hire to use E-Verify. How did Americans respond to this new information? In light of this fact, 58 percent of Americans would oppose E-Verify — just 37 percent still favored it. In fact, 63 percent of Republicans would oppose it.
This number of $147 is actually on the low end because according to the Westat report, all the costs came from 24 percent of users, meaning 76 percent reported no costs at all. But for this to be accurate, these “users” would have had to spend no time whatsoever on E-Verify, meaning they wouldn’t be using the program! This 76 percent number actually refers to “accounting costs,” such as buying a computer or hiring a new employee. Employers rarely report the “economic costs” of time spent, productivity and wages lost. In other words, the $147 estimate is extremely low, since it ignores the costs to most of U.S. employers.
If all Americans were ever made aware of the true costs, they would probably reject E-Verify even more overwhelmingly than they already do.