A federal system that lets employers check the legal status of their workers is soaring in popularity across the country, growing by 1,000 companies a week, fueled by anxiety over workplace raids and uncertainty over the future of the nation's illegal immigrants.
Leading the trend are Arizona and Mississippi, which have made the system mandatory for all employers, and 10 other states that require it for state agencies and contractors. But the system is also ballooning in states where it is optional, such as California, Texas, and Massachusetts.
In Massachusetts, enrollment quadrupled to 1,712 businesses over the past three years, from Boston's exclusive Algonquin Club to the Papa Gino's restaurant chain to the law firm Ropes & Gray, according to a list provided by the federal government. Individual employers and private households may also use the system: Ann Romney, wife of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, signed up last year after a Globe investigation found that the family had twice hired a landscaping company that used unauthorized workers.
Known as E-Verify, the system is up for renewal in Congress and igniting debate across the United States. Federal officials are waging a publicity campaign to turn the once-obscure service into a household name, while advocates for immigrants say it contains erroneous information that could lead to some workers being unfairly denied jobs.
But employers, rattled as business owners are going to jail and paying million-dollar fines for hiring illegal workers, say the system offers peace of mind.
"God knows we check everything," said Lassaad Riahi, general manager of the Algonquin Club, which signed up for E-Verify more than a year ago. "We don't want to hire anybody that doesn't have the proper identification or the proper IDs or the proper number or the proper something."
Nationally the number of businesses in the system has risen 10-fold since 2006, to more than 113,000 this week, with checks on 6.6 million workers last fiscal year, double the year before.
Congress established E-Verify, a partnership between the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, in 1996 as a pilot program for a handful of states.
But the system expanded significantly in 2007, amid national debate over illegal immigration, and government officials predict that it will become even more widespread if Congress legalizes the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
All federal agencies began using E-Verify in 2007, including the office of Barack Obama when he was a US senator, and it will be required of all federal contractors starting in May.E-Verify works like this: Companies and individual employers must first enroll in the free system, pass a tutorial, and sign a memorandum of understanding with the government. Then they enter all new employees' Social Security numbers and other information into an Internet program to verify their identities. The system searches federal databases and typically confirms the worker within seconds.
An unconfirmed employee has eight days to appeal. Companies can use the system for new hires only, under the rules, and do not automatically flag rejected workers for deportation because it is not used for enforcement.
Some employers are forced to use E-Verify - Rhode Island mandates it for state agencies - while others sign up voluntarily. Still other companies have signed up after something went wrong.
Eagle Industries started using the service in New Bedford after buying Michael Bianco Inc., the leather-goods factory raided by immigration agents two years ago. Former Bianco owner Francesco Insolia was recently sentenced to a year in prison and a $1 million fine.
Dunkin' Donuts made use of E-Verify mandatory for all stores in 2006 after a Connecticut franchise holder, Jose Calhelha, was arrested and charged with illegally hiring Portuguese workers. He was later sentenced to 10 months in prison, two years of probation, and a $1 million fine.
Business executives say the system is working overall, even as some grumble that it is time-consuming to learn and that problems can be costly to fix.
The Winchester Country Club, which has a long history of hiring seasonal landscapers from Honduras to groom the golf course, signed up last summer to improve hiring practices. Club officials immediately noticed that some of their best workers did not reapply.
"We don't intentionally hire illegal workers," said club general manager Paul Lazar. "Obviously, the reality is there's some really good people out there in the workforce and we'd love to be able to hire them. They show up every day and try to do a good job, and they don't sit around and try to call their girlfriends on their cellphones."
Critics of the service are anxious about E-Verify's rapid expansion. They say the existing databases contain inaccurate and sometimes fraudulent information. And they caution that enrolling in the system is no guarantee against immigration raids: The Swift & Co. meat packing company was enrolled in E-Verify when federal agents raided several plants in 2006 and arrested more than 1,200 people.
In addition, they say, legitimate workers are unfairly rejected because companies are wrongly screening them before they are hired, without giving them a chance to solve the problem.
"We think that an expansion of E-Verify without immigration reform makes no sense whatsoever," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "We're not fixing the problem."
Government officials say they have boosted resources to significantly reduce errors. Last year, 3.9 percent of queries did not match, which is similar to the roughly 5 percent of the workforce that is estimated to be here illegally. Only 0.4 percent of those who were rejected had the finding overturned and were declared authorized to work.
"The system is working," said Kathy Lotspeich, deputy chief of verification for US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Homeland Security agency that operates E-Verify. "We rarely get criticism from people who actually use the program."
The use of E-Verify is still tiny relative to the general workforce. Less than 2 percent of the nation's companies are enrolled, but more states and companies are considering using the service.
"Let's face it, the vast majority of employers want to do the right thing," said lawyer Susan Cohen of the Boston law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky, and Popeo, which advises companies on the issue."With the increased emphasis over the last couple of years on workplace raids," she said, "the Department of Homeland Security has really put fear into the hearts of employers across the country about what could happen at their companies.