The city of Asheville recently sponsored a seminar titled "Understanding Lawful Employment," featuring a panel of speakers who included local business consultants and federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security. The city's friendly Economic Development Office staffers welcomed the roughly 70 participants, mostly human-resource professionals. The Homeland Security presentation, however, was misleading and inaccurate. Even more troubling is the fact that City Council has taken such a partisan stand on a complex and controversial federal issue.
The lead presenters, Special Agent Darren Vazquetelles and Debora Fikes, are both from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They briefly talked about how employers can follow the law, which simply means filling out an I-9 form for every new employee to confirm their eligibility to work. But the bulk of their presentation was devoted to marketing two programs that employers aren't required to participate in.
E-Verify and IMAGE are key components of ICE's deter-and-detain strategy by recruiting employers as screens for identifying unauthorized immigrants. Employing both the carrot and the stick, the agents claimed that E-Verify is easy, convenient and free, and that workplaces choosing not to use it are more likely to find themselves the target of an ICE raid.
I was somewhat surprised that a seminar about employment law turned out to be an infomercial for voluntary enforcement programs, but I'm not surprised that E-Verify doesn't live up to its billing. According to the National Immigration Law Center (www.nilc.org), key problems include:
• Accuracy: The E-Verify databases are riddled with errors. While ICE claims a 0.4 percent error rate for the program, businesses that use it say differently. In 2008, Intel Corp. reported that more than 12 percent of its new workers were erroneously identified as ineligible for employment. The Social Security Administration estimates that if E-Verify were mandated for all U.S. employers, errors in the SSA database, the primary source for E-Verify, would cause 3.6 million incorrect responses a year (that's about 11,000 errors every day).
• Outdated information: E-Verify and IMAGE are online, electronic programs, but Homeland Security uses paper records. When a person's employment status changes, it can take more than a year for the correct data to be entered into the system.
• Discrimination: An independent 2007 investigation found that 47 percent of employers were inappropriately using E-Verify to screen applicants rather than to confirm new hires on their first day of work. This constitutes discrimination on the basis of race and national origin, which is illegal under the Civil Rights Act. Homeland Security has done little to address this issue since it was identified in 2002.
• Cost: The ICE agents stressed that their programs are free to employers, ignoring the costs of staff time, training and paperwork. One small business in Maryland calculated its estimated cost to participate in E-Verify at $27,000 annually.
Despite the misleading presentation, though, I'm not too concerned that E-Verify will suddenly catch on in Asheville. The audience's questions focused on the I-9, the only form required by law, and I heard many quiet expressions of disbelief that any employer would choose to sign up for additional federal bureaucracy.
But I was deeply troubled that a city-sponsored event on such a controversial topic was so one-sided. Immigration law is so complex and changes so frequently that even most immigration lawyers are reluctant to claim they fully understand it. In general, immigration-employment law falls into two main categories: enforcement (making sure employees are authorized to work in the United States) and worker-protection (ensuring that immigrant workers aren't abused or exploited, regardless of whether they have documents).
Yet the city's seminar addressed only enforcement, ignoring all the civil-rights and worker-protection laws that are routinely violated by some employers hiring immigrants in Western North Carolina. Wage theft, racial profiling, unsafe working conditions, hiring discrimination, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and even human trafficking all went without mention or notice, though all of these criminal practices are happening locally, as various nonprofit organizations can attest.
The Asheville seminar constituted an unfortunate foray by the city into a controversial federal issue. Nationwide, many people in the business, nonprofit and religious sectors favor some version of immigration reform that would provide a clear and fair path to citizenship for people who work hard, pay taxes and follow the law. But a vocal minority has been effectively pushing an enforcement-only approach: strict laws, aggressive enforcement, border walls and prisons. Anti-immigrant groups and individuals in Asheville are promoting a sort of racial McCarthyism, encouraging people to call the Homeland Security hot line whenever they observe "illegals" — which presumably means anyone with brown skin or an accent.
By offering this seminar, which twice advertised the hot line, I fear that the city has implicitly endorsed this tactic. And while I don't believe most Council members are prejudiced against immigrants, it does seem clear that special interests have led them to take sides on an extremely complex and controversial issue without thinking through the racial, ethical and legal implications of their position.
The seminar grew out of a City Council discussion of undocumented immigrants, the idea being that informing employers about the law is a politically neutral act. However, choosing to focus solely on enforcement while ignoring civil rights and worker protection is anything but. Instead, it aligns Asheville with people and groups who actively oppose the city's stated values of diversity, inclusion and tolerance.
I'm encouraged, though, by the many local nonprofits, church groups and businesses — far too numerous to list here — who are welcoming our immigrant neighbors, enjoying the cultural richness they bring to our region, and engaging the immigration issue with open minds and healthy dialogue. Where the community is leading, perhaps City Council will follow.
Asheville resident Craig White works at the Center for Participatory Change and serves on the board of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council.
Wage theft, racial profiling, unsafe working conditions, hiring discrimination, sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and even human trafficking all went without mention or notice.