ESCONDIDO: E-Verify policy creating unexpected turbulence

Friday, October 7, 2011 8:00 pm

Escondido's decision last March to become the first North County city to use the federal E-Verify program has created some unexpected turbulence, including a recent uproar about whether the program applies to the nearly 300 residents receiving city rent subsidies and their landlords.

It wasn't surprising when immigrant-rights advocates immediately criticized the council for requiring all city contractors to use E-Verify, a free database that determines whether people are legal residents of the country.

They questioned E-Verify's accuracy and called the new policy an attack on productive Escondido residents who lack legal documents.

But additional difficulties have included the City Council raising concerns in August that the policy might be discouraging small companies that don't use E-Verify from bidding for city work.

Council members worried that having fewer bidders could force the city to pay more for some goods and services.

And now the effects of E-Verify have begun creating problems for low-income residents who receive rent subsidies from the city.

Erroneous contracts written this summer by city staff prompted some of those tenants, especially those in the Carefree Mobile Home Park, to mistakenly believe they'd lose their subsidy unless they were cleared through E-Verify.

Many tenants were also worried that their subsidies would be delayed because some landlords declined to sign the new rental subsidy contracts when they noticed the contracts required them to run all new employees through E-Verify.

City Attorney Jeff Epp said the erroneous contracts were based on confusion about whether the E-Verify policy the council adopted last spring requires all parties who sign contracts with the city to use E-Verify, or whether it applies only to contractors providing goods and services to the city.

Epp said he determined in late September that the policy applies only to contractors providing goods and services, which exempts landlords who participate in the rent subsidy program.

Landlords have been instructed to strike through the E-Verify language in their contracts, sign them and return them to the city promptly, he said.

As for the tenants, Epp said they were never going to have their names run through E-Verify.

Such a requirement would be redundant, he said, because those in the subsidy program must be on a waiting list for federal "Section 8" housing assistance, which requires them to pass through the same kind of investigation into their legal status.

"There is already a federal safeguard in place to ensure that they legally reside in the country," Epp said.

Don Greene, president of the Coalition of Escondido Mobile/Manufactured Home Voters, said he was pleased the mistakes had been cleared up.

But Greene also said the controversy reminded him of an unsuccessful council attempt in 2006 to prohibit landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.

And Councilman Ed Gallo, who was also on the council when the rental ban was proposed, said this week that he would have wanted the city to use E-Verify on tenants receiving rent subsidies if their immigration status hadn't already been checked for the federal housing assistance.

"This is taxpayer money," Gallo said, referring to the rent subsidy, which is taken from federal money the city receives to help low-income residents.

Gallo recently lobbied his council colleagues to increase the subsidy, which went from $75 to $100 for mobile-home residents and from $100 to $125 for apartment residents on Oct. 1. The city spends about $130,000 per year for the program, which typically has a waiting list.

Councilwoman Olga Diaz, the only council member to vote against adopting E-Verify, said this week that the concerns about discouraging small contractors and the recent uproar over the rent subsidy show that the council adopted E-Verify without thinking it through.

"E-Verify was meant to be less intrusive than some other city attempts to deal with immigration, but it's still causing problems," Diaz said. "We didn't talk about any of these things before we adopted E-Verify."

But Mayor Sam Abed said the problems have been minor, and that E-Verify is an important weapon in the fight against illegal immigration.

Abed said he would urge every company to use E-Verify even if they aren't required to do so.

He predicted that use of the program would become nearly universal in the next few years because it's free and easy, and because it's being required more and more by government agencies.

Call staff writer David Garrick at 760-740-5468 ... z1a9tfx8Ry