PROVIDENCE - Private employers would be forced to verify the immigration status of new workers under a bill that House lawmakers passed yesterday to discourage illegal immigration.
The bill, adopted 53 to 17, would force all companies in Rhode Island to use a federal database called E-Verify to determine whether new hires are in the country legally.
Companies that refuse could face a fine up to $5,000.
Supporters call the database a tool for keeping illegal immigrants out of the workforce, while immigration advocates say the database is prone to error and sometimes identifies US citizens and legal immigrants as ineligible to work.
Last month Governor Don Carcieri signed an order directing executive branch agencies and companies doing business with the state to use the same database to screen their employees.
His order, which set off a fierce debate, also requires State Police and prison officials to identify illegal immigrants for possible deportation.
Besides Rhode Island, at least 11 other states require public or private employers to use the E-Verify system, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Illinois has banned employers from using the database until its accuracy improves. The Illinois ban has not been implemented, because federal authorities have filed a lawsuit challenging it.
Representative Jon D. Brien, a Democrat from Woonsocket and the bill's sponsor, said it complements Carcieri's order.
He said he fears that business owners willing to employ illegal immigrants can pay their workers below minimum wage, increase their profits, and undercut competitors who obey employment laws.
"The workforce in the state of Rhode Island should be a legal one," Brien said.
The database allows employers to electronically verify the immigration status of new hires by comparing their name, Social Security number, birth date, and other information against federal records. If the information matches, the employee is cleared for work.
Employees who are rejected have eight business days to appeal the decision and contact federal authorities before they must be fired, said Bill Wright, a spokesman for the US Citizenship and Immigration Service.
The database sometimes rejects people who are eligible to work. For example, about 3 percent of foreign-born workers are erroneously rejected by the E-Verify system, compared with 0.1 percent of US citizens born here, according to a 2007 report commissioned by the US Department of Homeland Security.
The report cautioned that these error rates cannot be fixed quickly.
During the debate, some lawmakers said they feared that workers rejected by the E-Verify system might not have enough time to correct mistakes.
Representative Donna Walsh said she has long tried to resolve a paperwork problem with the Social Security Administration.
"I really have concerns about Social Security rectifying anything or doing anything in a timely manner," she said.