Floor Statement of Senator Barack Obama on the Employment Verification Amendment

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On the Employment Verification Amendment
by Barack Obama
Delivered on 23 May 2006.

Mr. President. I come to the floor today to discuss the bipartisan employment verification system amendment that Senators Grassley, Kennedy, Kyl, and I have introduced.

One of the central components of immigration reform is enforcement, and this bill contains a number of important provisions to beef up border security. But that's not enough. Real enforcement also means drying up the pool of jobs that encourages illegal immigration. And that can only happen if employers don't hire illegal workers. Unfortunately, our current employer enforcement system does little to nothing to deter illegal immigrants from finding work.

Overall, the number of workplace arrests of illegal immigrants fell from 17,552 in 1997 to 451 in 2002, even as illegal immigration grew during that time. Moreover, between 25% to 40% of all undocumented immigrants are people who have overstayed their visas. And the only way to effectively deter overstays is to reduce access to employment.

When Congress last passed an immigration bill in 1986, we didn't provide a meaningful way for employers to check legal eligibility to work. Currently, employees can prove their legal status by showing a variety of documents, and employers are supposed to record their inspection of such documents by filling out an I-9 form for each employee. As a result, the market for fraudulent documents -- fake Social Security cards, driver's licenses, birth certificates - has exploded.

But, with more than 100 million employees in more than 6 million workplaces, and only about 788 Wage and Hour investigators, employer sanctions have become merely a nuisance requirement to maintain records, not a serious risk of penalties. As a result, the number of "intent to fine" notices issued to employers for hiring undocumented workers dropped from 417 in 1999 to just three in 2004.

Understandably, employers cannot always detect forged documents. And employers who reject workers with questionable documents risk an employment discrimination suit.

That's why we need a better alternative. We need an electronic verification system that can effectively detect the use of fraudulent documents, significantly reduce the employment of illegal workers, and give employers the confidence that their workforce is legal.

When Congress first considered comprehensive immigration reform in April, the legislation on the floor addressed this problem by creating a national employment eligibility verification system. Senators Grassley, Kyl, and I all thought that was a good idea in theory, but we had concerns with the design of the system.

Senators Grassley and Kyl proposed that the verification system be implemented nationally within 18 months.

Senators Kennedy and I proposed that the system be phased in over five years but that it also include additional accuracy and privacy standards, as well as strict prohibitions on use of the system to discriminate against workers.

For the past few weeks, our staffs have worked together in a bipartisan effort to negotiate a substitute that took the concerns of both proposals into consideration. I'm pleased that we've reached an agreement.

Under our compromise amendment, all employers would have to participate 18 months after the Department of Homeland Security receives the appropriations needed to fund the system. All new employees hired would have to be run through the system, and a series of privacy and accuracy standards would protect citizens and legal immigrants from errors in the system and breaches of private information.

And to make sure that employers take the system seriously, we strengthen civil penalties for employers who hire unauthorized workers, and we establish criminal penalties for repeat violators.

We've worked in a constructive, bipartisan manner to design an employment verification system that is fair to legal workers and tough on illegal workers. This is a good amendment, and I urge my colleagues to support it.

Thank you.