The number of companies enrolled in a federal program that checks employees' immigration status has more than tripled in New York in recent years, echoing a national trend as businesses seek to avoid problems with undocumented workers.

But the nearly 7,000 New York companies that have signed up for E-Verify, a federal employee-verification program, still represent a tiny fraction of the state's 1.8 million businesses.

Immigration records show that more than 1,300 companies in Nassau and Suffolk have signed up for the free and voluntary U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program - a 256 percent increase since 2008.

Launched as a pilot program in 1997, E-Verify has expanded and is being discussed as a key element of future immigration reforms. The program was started to give employers a simple way to ensure they are complying with federal immigration laws.

Access Staffing of Melville joined the program several weeks ago. Clients who depend on the company for their hiring needs requested it.

"We just see E-Verify as an additional piece of verification to what we already do to check employee eligibility," said John Magloire, Access Staffing's chief operating officer. "Fortunately, everyone we've checked has been clean so far, so we haven't had to deal with any negative results."

The government has been investing more resources in E-Verify, recently adding photos from immigration and passport databases to help curtail document fraud. Driver's license databases will be added this year.

"Clearly, we see this [program] as something that is going to help us in the future," said Andrea Quarantillo, the agency's district director for New York City, Long Island and seven upstate counties.

After undergoing training, participating companies can use a web interface to input Social Security data for instant status checks. The program is restricted to new hires with firms that have signed up for verification.

If there's an information mismatch, E-Verify issues a "tentative non-confirmation," giving employees eight days to confirm their identity. If the problem isn't resolved, a company using the system must fire the worker.

Of those checked throughout the United States, only 1.4 percent have been found ineligible to work and were fired, say immigration officials. Another 0.3 percent ran into database errors.

"It's a smart business practice to do whatever you can to make sure you are on the right side of the law," Quarantillo said. "It's free, it's quick and it's simple for employers."

Some companies, especially small firms without human resources departments, aren't eager to take on more work.

"I vaguely remember signing up for it, but we haven't used it," said Richard Roll, vice president of Elwood International, a Copiague company that sells pre-packed condiments. "We are a small company with 15 to 20 employees where we know everyone who works here."

The Long Island Association, representing more than 5,000 businesses in the region, welcomes help for companies trying to comply with the law - as long as business owners don't have to end up helping the government pursue individuals, said president Kevin Law.

A Feb. 10 congressional hearing signaled that the program could become central to future reform efforts.

Some who favor enforcement want the employee checks to become mandatory, while immigration advocates say E-Verify could become an ineffective mandate that will mostly inconvenience legal workers.

"If this system is expanded, that doesn't mean people are going to leave. It means they will go to an underground economy," said Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst with the Immigration Policy Center, a research group in Washington, D.C., that favors immigrant-friendly policies.

Other experts think the government is making progress in perfecting a system that would keep more unauthorized workers from getting jobs.

"E-Verify is here to stay," said Steven Camarota, research director with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter enforcement. "There's a lot of employers who want to use it because they sense it's the wave of the future, and you might as well start now."

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