Advocates for undocumented immigrants accuse U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) of trying to drive illegal workers further underground with a new bill that would require employers to check applicants' immigration status against a federal database.

But DeFazio says House Bill 483, which he introduced Jan. 26, is a better version of a proposal he fears Republicans are pushing in the GOP-controlled House to deal with an estimated 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. 

He also calls his bill to mandate the use of E-Verify (a federal system for checking workers' Social Security numbers) a necessary first step before Congress can impose comprehensive immigration reform. 

DeFazio's proposal, a reincarnation of a 2009 bill from former Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) to mandate the use of E-Verify, puts him squarely at the forefront of today's immigration battle, which increasingly calls for compromise in a divided Congress.

As the Lane County Democrat sees it, unless federal authorities can stem the flow of undocumented workers to the states (Oregon has an estimated 150,000 undocumented workers), Democrats can't win support for legislation like the DREAM Act, a bill to give undocumented immigrants who have graduated from U.S. high schools a path to citizenship.

"We need a system for employers who want to follow the law," DeFazio says. "It's time to break the cycle."

The rumored Republican bill DeFazio worries about would grant exemptions to agricultural employers, who wouldn't have to check their workers' status with E-Verify, a loophole DeFazio says might allow some workers to be exploited. He says his bill is less draconian because it would include protections for workers whose legal status might be flagged erroneously.

But Oregon's leading group for immigrant rights, CAUSA, cautions that any bill to mandate verification of workers' immigrant status by fining employers $5,000 per illegal hire—what's now proposed in DeFazio's bill—would only push illegal workers deeper into the underground economy. 

If they can't get jobs on the books, they'll work under the table, and that means they probably won't pay taxes, according to CAUSA.

"They'll move into the shadows," says CAUSA Executive Director Francisco Lopez. "These people will be abused more."

Rather than compromise, CAUSA sees too many contradictions in DeFazio's position.

"He votes in favor of the DREAM Act, now he wants to introduce E-Verify," Lopez says. "I don't think he has a consistent view of immigration."

Lopez adds: "This will hurt the same kids who he wanted to help with the DREAM Act."

DeFazio says his position is consistent. But the subject of a recent cover story (see “Hiding in America,” WW, Jan. 19, 2011) illustrates one of Lopez’s objections. 

"Cecilia," as she was called in the story, used a fake Social Security number to get a job at a fast-food restaurant. If E-Verify had been mandatory when she did that, her application would have been rejected. 

DeFazio says he hopes reforms like the DREAM Act might be in place by the time his bill takes effect so young people like Cecilia could remain in the United States.

At least one of his Oregon colleagues, fellow Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, won't support his bill on the belief that E-Verify sometimes misidentifies workers as illegal and that it needs to be improved before federal authorities make it mandatory. Blumenauer does say he supports voluntary use of E-Verify. "He does not think the program is ready yet for broader implementation," Blumenauer spokesman Derek Schlickeisen writes in an email.

As DeFazio promotes his bill in Congress (so far he has two co-sponsors, neither of whom are from Oregon), there's also activity in the Oregon Legislature on this controversial topic.

State Reps. Mike Schaufler (D-Happy Valley), Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) and Sen. Sal Esquivel (R-Medford) have all introduced or drafted bills to force Oregon employers to use E-Verify. Thatcher's bill would make noncompliance after 2012 punishable with Oregon tax penalties. 

But they say their bills face slim chances of passage in an evenly divided Oregon House.

"We always turn a blind eye to what helps a certain small segment of society," Esquivel says. "I don't think that's appropriate."

But DeFazio is hopeful passage of his bill will drive the immigration debate in a positive direction.

"That will help us move toward a comprehensive solution," he says. "We're no longer going to allow big-business folks to tap into an endless supply of exploitable, cheap labor."