Alabama ........ 753 ......5,106
Georgia ...... 5,976 ....26,634
Tennessee .. 1,413...... 4,761
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
New mandates to verify the employment eligibility of new hires in the tri-state area is being received with mixed feelings from the business community.
Under laws passed last year in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, as of Jan. 1 many employers are required to use the federal E-Verify program to assure that all new hires are U.S. citizens, permanent residents or have a visa that allows them to work.
Previously the program was strictly voluntary.
Employers in Tennessee also have the option of asking for and keeping a copy of a form of identification such as a valid Tennessee driver's license.
Jim Brown, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses for Tennessee, said some of its members are in favor and some are against it.
"Some of our members who are using it, they've had problems with it. There's still an error rate, depends on who you talk to, between 2 and 5 percent; it's time-consuming ... and some are caught with an error that shouldn't be generated," he said.
"But for many of our members, it moves things in the right direction; they want it," Brown said.
E-Verify uses information collected in the I-9, or the Employment Eligibility Verification form, and matches it against records from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2011, 12 states enacted legislation with E-Verify provisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and that number is expected to rise.
Georgia was among the first states to require E-Verify for public employers and contractors, launching its program in 2007.
"It was kind of dormant for a little while, and I think with Arizona's push in 2007 and the ruling from the Supreme Court last year - which upheld Arizona's right to require businesses to use E-Verify - I think we are going to see a lot of action coming in 2012," said Ann Morse, with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Ready for prime time?
A federal proposal is pending that would require the use of E-Verify nationwide.
But the program is not uniformly accepted among states, Morse said.
Some, like Illinois, are concerned about the database and whether people have an opportunity to appeal without losing their jobs.
About 98 percent of employees are automatically confirmed as authorized to work, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and 1.7 percent of employees receive initial system mismatches.
"Two populations I'm told have the greatest problems with the database are women who change their names and naturalized citizens," said Morse.
Employers are required to inform employees so they can contest the mismatch, but some wonder how the program would operate if implemented more widely.
"The question is, is it ready for prime time or not?" said Brown. "The sponsors of our bills feel it is; some don't. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is among those now required to verify an employee's work authorization within three days of being hired.
"On the one hand, we should make sure that the people we hire are authorized to work in the United States" and E-Verify is one way of doing so, said Dan Webb, the university's human resources director.
"On the other hand, it creates a lot more work for human resource departments," he said.
The university has close to 3,700 employees and last year it hired almost 900 people, the majority student workers. Only Webb's office of seven employees, including him, can run E-Verify, he said.
Joe Carr, R-Murfreesboro and the sponsor of the bill, said the rapid growth of illegal immigrants in the state was one of the main reasons for the bill.
From 1990 to 2010 the number of unauthorized immigrants in Tennessee rose from 10,000 to 140,000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
In Georgia, it increased from 35,000 to 425,000 and in Alabama, from 5,000 to 120,000 during the same period.
But in Tennessee and Georgia, those numbers actually declined from 2007 to 2010, and experts say the flow of immigrants is slowing.
States still are trying to figure out how to use E-Verify effectively, Morse said.
In Tennessee and Georgia it's being phased in, but in Alabama all employers will have to sign up to use E-Verify by April.
As of January, only those doing contracts with the government are required to use it, but the way the law is written it can include anyone, said Rosemary Elebash with the National Federation of Independent Businesses in Alabama.
"In a small town, the local hardware store, the restaurant, all of them do business with the city or the county, even with the school system," she said.
The biggest issue the organization has is trying to educate business owners, she said.
Alabama Rep. Todd Greeson, R-DeKalb, who voted for the immigration bill that includes the E-Verify requirement, said it's not a perfect system but something needs to be done about illegal immigration.
More than 4 percent of Alabama's workforce, or 95,000, comprises unauthorized immigrants, about the same as in Tennessee, according to the Pew Hispanic Center estimates. In Georgia, the center estimates that number to be about 325,000, or 7 percent of the total share of the workforce.
Greeson said using E-Verify should decrease that number, but the state should help train employers.
"If we are going to ask our businesses to do this, we at least need to help them," he said.
The Alabama Department of Homeland Security can help businesses with 25 or fewer employees with E-Verify.
Contact staff writer Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@times freepress.com or 423-757-6578. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Perla_Trevizo.