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Town may join US screening

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / June 28, 2012
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The hot-button issue of illegal immigration is back on the agenda for the Milford Board of Selectmen, which must decide whether the town will enroll in an online system meant to rapidly verify the immigration status of new employees.

Last week, Police Chief Thomas O’Loughlin and Town Administrator Louis Celozzi met with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to discuss the benefits of joining its IMAGE program.

“It costs the town nothing and gives us greater access to information. It makes perfect sense to me,” O’Loughlin said. “We are asking the Board of Selectmen to authorize it.”

But critics say the agency’s computerized E-Verify system has bugs that can incorrectly flag workers even if all their immigration and work documents are in order.

“It seems very efficient,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “The truth of the matter is E-Verify has been demonstrated to have a high error rate. It disproportionately affects the foreign born.”

Milford is one of four communities in Massachusetts that the Department of Homeland Security has invited to sign onto its IMAGE program. The other communities are Boston, Braintree, and New Bedford, said Special Agent Bruce M. Foucart.

“There is definitely a push for E-Verify. We feel it is a very good system with good results,” Foucart said. “At the end of the day, we want to have a legally compliant workforce.”

The federal immigration agency, known as ICE, is holding a daylong conference Thursday at the DoubleTree Suites in Boston to explain the IMAGE program and how companies or towns can sign on. The free event touches on how to use the E-Verify system, as well as best practices for hiring and establishing an immigration compliance program, and building in antidiscrimination procedures.

Milford Selectman Dino DeBartolomeis said he is in favor of joining the program. “Anything we can do to address this very large and complex issue and close some of the cracks is welcome,” he said.

Milford has been a focus of the debate about illegal immigration in Massachusetts ever since a fatal crash last summer that involved a driver alleged to be drunk, unlicensed, and in the country illegally.

Joining the ICE program would enable Milford to verify almost immediately the citizenship status of prospective town employees, advocates say.

The E-Verify system cross-checks information on an individual’s mandatory I-9 forms with databases at both the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration to determine whether they are US citizens or legal residents authorized to work.

Approvals and denials — complete with photographs, when available — return within seconds, O’Loughlin said.

Ideally, communities would sign on and encourage local businesses to follow suit, Foucart said. ICE also is courting large employers around New England to sign up for IMAGE, which entitles them to training on how to use the E-Verify system, and an initial audit of their previous I-9s without risk of fines for violations — as long as violations are found on less than half of their applications.

The outreach is part of a fairly recent shift at the federal agency to root out illegal immigration at the workplace, where employers have been required to verify workers’ eligibility by filing I-9 forms since 1987.

However, I-9 audits were uncommon even five years ago, when nationwide only 254 were conducted. Last year, the Homeland Security Department conducted a record 2,496 audits, according to spokesman Ross Feinstein.

“ICE’s worksite enforcement strategy focuses on employers. An effective, comprehensive strategy must address both employers who knowingly hire illegal workers as well as the workers themselves,” Feinstein said.

The increased audits last year resulted in the arrests of 221 employers, with 193 convictions, and more than $10 million in fines nationwide, Feinstein said.

But Millona cites a 2007 federal study of the system that found inaccuracies and outdated information in databases at both the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security had led to eligible workers being flagged incorrectly as either ineligible or tentatively ineligible for employment.

Inconsistencies in the records trigger a “tentative nonconfirmation’’ notice to be sent to the employer. It is then up to the worker to sort out the problem in person at a Social Security office, which at best means lost time and wages at work but can also lead to lost jobs for those who do not get the errors fixed, Millona said.

But Foucart said companies and communities that are part of the IMAGE program would have help sorting out records for employees who get flagged.

“With IMAGE, we are there by your side, so if someone is flagged and they say they are legal, we are there to help keep that employee with the company, as long as what he is saying is accurate,” Foucart said.

The rate of mismatches in the E-Verify system dropped from 8 percent in 2007 to 2.6 percent in 2009, according to the US General Accountability Office.

According to the latest figures by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security, 98.3 percent of the 16.5 million queries entered into E-Verify in 2010 returned automatic confirmations, with just 1.7 percent triggering tentative nonconfirmation, or TNC, notices.

While the E-Verify and IMAGE programs are voluntary, the Massachusetts Senate last month passed a $32.4 billion budget that included a requirement that companies doing business with the state use the electronic system to verify the immigration status of their employees.

The House version of the budget for next fiscal year does not include that provision, and Millona said her advocacy coalition is watching closely as legislators hash out the differences in their proposed spending plans.

“We have made our view very clear. We oppose the legislation and we hope the conference committee will eliminate this piece as an unnecessary . . . section of the budget,” Millona said. “At the federal level, we are a strong voice calling for comprehensive immigration reform. First, you have to fix the system to eliminate the errors before you can make it mandated.”

Jose Martinez can be reached at

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