By Loren Steffy
Executive Producer, the Rational Middle of Immigration
Apparently, President Donald Trump hasn’t heard of Todd Davis.
The Trump Organization, the president’s private company that owns several golf courses, has had an embarrassing problem of hiring undocumented immigrants even as its namesake has been calling for a wall to keep them out. So, the organization announced last week that it would adopt the government’s E-Verify system.
The government created E-Verify in 1996 so employers could compare workers’ I-9 forms, in which they state their immigration status when they’re hired, against other government-issued identification, usually Social Security numbers.
The problem is that E-Verify is about as effective at preventing the hiring of undocumented immigrants as a wall is at keeping them from entering the country. E-Verify’s reliance on Social Security cards to verify identification makes it ineffective.
Social Security cards are easily forged documents. Thousands of undocumented immigrants purchase them for as little as $20 at the nearest flea market, as Todd Davis found out the hard way. Between 2006 and 2010, hundreds of undocumented immigrants purchased fake Social Security cards with Davis’ number on them.
Davis, who is not an immigrant, founded LifeLock, a company that claims to protect consumers from identity theft. Davis was so confident in his product that he emblazoned billboards and newspaper ads with his actual Social Security number, basically daring identity thieves to steal it.
What Davis didn’t count on was that forgers would use his valid Social Security number to provide undocumented immigrants with fake IDs that would easily clear E-Verify.
“When he put out his Social, it made it really easy for people to figure out his date of birth, and once you had his date of birth, you just get an ID made with your picture and his date of birth and his Social on it — you’ll clear E-Verify,” said Jacob Monty, a Houston immigration and labor attorney who represents companies with large Latino workforces.
Monty has found more than 165 different undocumented immigrants using Davis’ identity, often pasting their own picture on an ID with Davis’ name and birthdate.
Undocumented immigrants who don’t choose to become Todd Davis still have no problem finding other identities. Some use the Social Security numbers of their U.S.-born children. Others find prisoners who sell their Social Security numbers to raise money for their families while they’re incarcerated. Puerto Rico is fertile ground for fake identities, too. “That’s counterfeit paradise,” Monty said. “You have a whole island of U.S. citizens that have Spanish surnames, and they can sell those names to Mexicans in the U.S. who need fake documents — and they clear E-Verify.”
Even when the Social Security Administration notifies an employer that a number doesn’t match a name, that doesn’t mean the employee is fired. Often, a “no-match” is the result of a typo or a transposed name, which can be especially common with Hispanic surnames. “Not every no-match is evil,” Monty said.
Discrepancies also can be uncovered by the Internal Revenue Service, through the forms that must be filed under the Affordable Care Act. But again, the IRS does not tell employers they must fire the employee. There’s little coordination with other agencies. So even if the workers are fired, they’re rarely deported, which allows them to get a job somewhere else and start the process over again.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also conducts regular audits of businesses and can levy administrative and criminal fines if ICE can show the employer knowingly hired undocumented workers.
“I firmly believe that most employers don’t know that the people are undocumented,” Monty said. “Undocumented people look like the rest of us. They speak perfect English, oftentimes. Many of them were brought here as babies.”
Most employers aren’t equipped to ferret out false documents. While they are supposed to reject documents that are obviously fake, laser printing and imagining technology has made counterfeit cards almost undetectable. Monty had two former ICE agents working for his law firm, and some of the fake IDs were good enough to fool them, he said.
It’s little wonder that only about 11 percent of all employers use E-Verify, according to data compiled by the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division.
Rather than preventing the hiring of undocumented immigrants, E-Verify can make it possible for even well-intentioned employers to legally hire someone living in the United States illegally.
For the system to work effectively, we need a tamper-proof form of identification for immigrant workers. To do that, though, we would have to provide some sort of legal status for immigrants already working in the United States, because an estimated 8 million undocumented workers hold jobs here. Losing them would reduce our economic growth by as much as 6 percent, triggering a substantial recession, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office.
The Trump Organization’s use of E-Verify may mollify voters loyal to the president, but in reality, it’s merely perpetuating our broken immigration system. Rather than playing politics, President Trump could use the problems at his own company to highlight the need for a better system. That’s something that both parties and most employers should be able to agree on.
Loren Steffy is a journalist, author and the executive producer of the free, web-based video series The Rational Middle of Immigration.