updated 9/8/2009 4:11:14 PM ET 2009-09-08T20:11:14

For federal contractors, it's time to start checking whether employees are able to legally work in the United States.

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Beginning Tuesday, the federal government is requiring federal contractors to use the E-Verify system to check the immigration and citizenship status of the people they hire and assign to new federal contracts.

"Don't panic about this. You do have time, but the time will pass quickly, so vigilance is important," Bonnie Gibson, a partner with New York-based Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy law firm, told hundreds of contractors who dialed in to a conference call last week for an explanation of the Obama administration's latest immigration enforcement rule.

Contractors have 30 days from the date a contract is awarded to enroll in E-Verify, and 90 days to start submitting information on new hires and certain current workers. Contractors have the option of checking their entire work force, once they notify the government of their intent to do so. They also will be responsible for requiring subcontractors to use E-Verify.

As the rule takes effect and more workers' information goes through the system, there is likely to be a spike in the number of workers who are not confirmed as permitted to work in the U.S., said Cynthia Lange, a partner of Fragomen law firm, who is based in California.

Employers already use a paper application, known as I-9, to check workers' legal status. E-Verify is a Web-based system that cross-checks names and other information against Homeland Security Department and Social Security Administration databases.

E-Verify is intended to help find people who are in the country illegally, and those who are legally present but not authorized to work, such as students.

Some exceptions
Generally, the new federal rule applies to hires for contracts of $100,000 or more that are awarded as of Sept. 8, last longer than 120 days and don't involve commercially available products. There will be some exceptions. Businesses with contracts that are current, significant and indefinite also may have to check the status of workers.

Bill Wright, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services, said the agency isn't expecting to be flooded with queries on employees' immigration status. He said there are about 169,000 U.S. federal contractors with about 3.8 million workers.

As of Aug. 29, 145,653 employers were using the E-Verify system. About 1,000 employers a week enroll. The system has handled 7.6 million queries on workers since Oct. 1 of last year, Wright said.

"If all contracts were let and we had to verify them all on Sept. 8, this system could handle it. This is not going to be the scenario, so there is no reason to step up resources here," he said.

Among the E-Verify system's flaws — limited ability to determine if someone is using a stolen identity and it makes mistakes, such as with names and marital status.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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