Ryan Hagen, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/27/2011 02:37:13 PM PST

Nearly 1,000 county businesses screen employees’ immigration status with a process called E-Verify, part of a 37-percent surge statewide in the number of employers using the system since 2010.

That’s despite concerns the process – which runs workers’ information against Homeland Security and Social Security databases to make sure they are allowed to work in the United States – encourages prejudice.

Those concerns persuaded the California Legislature in October to prohibit local governments from forcing firms to use the system. The ban will go into effect Jan. 1.

Among the cities that voted to require E-Verify in the last two years are Murrieta and Lancaster, both cities where Stater Bros. operates.

“Knowing that (requirement) will probably roll over to other cities, we felt it was a good time to jump on board,” said Jack Brown, the chain’s CEO. “There wasn’t any reason we didn’t (use E-Verify before), except we felt our people were doing a good job at it.”

At least 965 companies based in San Bernardino County run their employees through the system, compared to roughly 600 in 2009, according to a database put together by the Conta Costa Times.

But that number – which doesn’t include companies that use E-Verify but have headquarters outside the county, such as Walmart – still comes to just 3percent of the nearly 32,000 nonfarm businesses in San Bernardino County, according to the Census Bureau.

Worried about errors

One company choosing to skip out is Fontana-based A&R Tarpaulins.

That’s not because of ideological opposition or because the business doesn’t take immigration issues seriously, said Bud Weisbart, vice president and sole co-owner.

“We make sure we have a Social Security card and number and that we submit payroll with that number on it,” Weisbart said. “If there’s an inconsistency, we’re notified. I would think over the years we’ve had maybe one or two indications that maybe someone was illegal.”

That’s out of 36 years of business for the fabric and aerospace manufacturer, which Weisbart said employs 48 full- or part-time employees for an average of 12 years each.

Instead, Weisbart worries the process is flawed.

“I’ve heard horror stories about employers actually dismissing people because they found something on E-Verify that doesn’t sound right,” he said. “My understanding is those people have been totally legitimate.”

Weisbart isn’t alone.

A nonpartisan think-tank reported in 2009 that E-Verify automatically clears nearly 97percent of potential hires to work, and 99percent are eventually cleared through the system. But a 1-percent error rate would mean about 600,000 legal immigrants and U.S. citizens would be rejected if the system became mandatory, said the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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