DeSantis's E-Verify Won't Work. But If It Did, It Would Be Terrible for Florida's Economy | Opinion

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is positioning himself as tough on immigration ahead of a potential presidential run. But one of the big policies he's implementing as part of this posturing is all smoke and no fire.

On May 10, DeSantis signed legislation mandating that all Florida businesses with more than 25 employees use "E-Verify," a federal system where employers run their workers through a government database that determines whether they're legally able to work in the U.S. If they're flagged as an illegal immigrant, they're denied the job. DeSantis's legislation also strengthens the penalties employers who do not comply with the mandate could theoretically face.

The idea behind E-Verify is simple enough: In theory, it could make employment impossible for illegal immigrants, driving current illegal residents out of a state and taking away the incentive for more to unlawfully migrant there. In reality, it largely fails to accomplish its goals while causing problems for thousands of innocent people and burdening employers.

We've already seen E-Verify fail abysmally in the states where it's been implemented. In the states where E-Verify has been mandated, a surprisingly low percentage of affected employers actually comply. In 2015, for example, Mississippi saw only a 41.66 percent compliance rate, meaning that nearly 60 percent of employers didn't actually run their hires through the system. Even the state with the highest compliance rate that year, Arizona, still only obtained a 73.6 percent compliance rate, meaning almost 30 percent of employers didn't run their hires through the system.

But here's the really surprising part: Even when businesses do comply, E-Verify is terrible at actually identifying illegal immigrants. The vast majority of illegal immigrants easily evade it, because E-Verify only catches about 20 percent of illegal workers put through its system. Data show that from 2006 to 2018, it let 12 million illegal hirings move forward, roughly 80 percent of all undocumented hirings attempted.

Why is E-Verify so ineffective? "The loophole is that E-Verify checks the documents, it doesn't check the worker," Cato Institute immigrant scholar Alex Nowrasteh told me. What that means in practice is that if an illegal immigrant hands an employer someone else's work documents, it approves the documents—and the person holding them. "It incentives identity theft and identity loans, where people let other people use their ID to get a job."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during an Iowa GOP reception on May 13, 2023 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Although he has not yet announced his candidacy, Gov. DeSantis has received the endorsement of 37 Iowa lawmakers for the Republican presidential nomination next year. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Wouldn't employers notice if you hand them your cousin or your brother's ID? Maybe, but maybe not, and frankly, they usually don't care—and it's safer for them to not ask questions.

"Employers aren't very interested in enforcing this law," Nowrasteh told me. "They don't really care as long as they abide by the letter of the rules and check through E-Verify." They might not look too carefully at the documents, plus if they do, they could get hit by a discrimination claim. "A lot of the folks who are going to have false documents are going to be Hispanic. If they make a mistake, the downsides could be quite bad for them."

Employers also just don't really care that much about legal status, says Nowrasteh. They just want a worker.

All things considered, there's very little reason to believe that DeSantis's new mandate will actually significantly reduce—let alone eliminate—the estimated 772,000 illegal immigrant population in Florida. For one thing, approximately 56 percent of illegal immigrants in Florida work at employers that aren't even covered by this expansion, because they have fewer than 25 employees. The rest can work at the employers who don't bother running their workers through the system, or they can borrow documents and work at a compliant employer, or simply work under the table.

Even with E-Verify mandated, illegal immigrants won't actually have much incentive to leave the state. And because E-Verify won't actually serve its main purpose, it won't achieve any of DeSantis's intended goals. It won't do much to reduce illegal migration to Florida, it won't protect jobs for Americans, and it won't lead to meaningfully higher wages for citizens and legal workers.

But E-Verify does have serious downsides. For one, it catches a relatively small but not-insignificant number of citizens or legal immigrants up in its webs. The Cato Institute estimates that between 2006 and 2018, roughly 760,000 legal workers, either citizens or legal immigrants, were falsely flagged by the E-Verify system. Some were able to prove their innocence—they're given eight business days to do so—but others weren't and lost out on jobs or had to jump through costly and cumbersome hoops to do so.

It's also expensive for employers. The actual E-Verify service itself is free for businesses to use, but compliance costs still occur due to the many hours it takes for them to comply and the extensive data collection they must engage in. So, too, in the rare cases where their employees are wrongly flagged as illegal workers, it can be very expensive to contest and overturn that determination. That's why in 2011, it was estimated that the average cost of the "free" E-Verify system actually comes out to $127 per employee for relatively-small businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

In another interesting twist, if DeSantis's E-Verify expansion did actually work as intended and locked three-quarters of a million residents out of the labor market, it would actually be terrible for Florida's economy. Florida is currently experiencing a massive labor shortage. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Florida has approximately 611,000 open jobs and not nearly enough workers to fill them.

In fact, Florida only has 57 workers available for every 100 job openings. And DeSantis and his allies apparently want to make this labor shortage exponentially worse by blocking hundreds of thousands of available laborers.

Worsening a labor shortage is a recipe for anemic economic growth and rising prices that would far outweigh any benefits of boosted wages to legal workers. You're not actually better off if your paycheck goes up on paper but it can't buy you as much since prices have risen too. Luckily, the E-Verify expansion is likely to be so ineffective that this economic carnage is largely avoided.

Since it accomplishes little, puts some law-abiding people in a jam, and burdens employers, there's simply no good policy reason for DeSantis to have pushed forward with this expansion. It still might be smart politics, since many voters aren't aware of the downsides of E-Verify and it sounds good on paper, especially to the kind of Republicans who vote in presidential primaries. But while it might help DeSantis politically, expanded E-Verify won't actually work out well for the state of Florida.

Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is an independent journalist and co-founder of BASEDPolitics.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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