State warns cities, counties to file E-Verify reports

State auditors are warning nearly 1,200 city and county government agencies that they are at risk of losing access to state loans and grants because they are not complying with a key part of Georgia's illegal immigration law.

At issue is a requirement that government employers with two or more employees file annual reports certifying they and their public works contractors are using a federal work authorization program called E-Verify. The program helps ensure newly hired employees are eligible to work in the United States by comparing information they submit against federal records, including those held by the Social Security Administration.

The statute -- signed into law last year by Gov. Nathan Deal -- is aimed at blocking illegal immigrants from taking jobs from U.S. citizens. It is also intended to block taxpayer support from going to government contractors who hire illegal immigrants.

Supporters of Georgia's law often point to a Pew Hispanic Center estimate that 325,000 illegal immigrants held jobs in Georgia in 2010. They say that is unacceptable, particularly since many citizens have been struggling to find jobs. Georgia's unemployment rate stands at 8.9 percent, above the national rate of 8.2 percent.

The State Department of Audits and Accounts sent letters to about 1,190 government agencies Monday, telling them they failed to file their reports by the Dec. 31 deadline. On the list were cities, counties, downtown development, hospital and housing authorities. The letter urges them to file by July 25 or risk losing access to certain state funding, including tens of millions of dollars in state community development block grants.

The letter also warns the government agencies that the Immigration Enforcement Review Board could sanction them. That punishment could include fines of up to $5,000 for officials who "knowingly" violate the law.

It is unknown how many of the government agencies on the state auditors' list have fewer than two employees and are, therefore, exempt from the reporting requirement. State auditors are telling exempt agencies to inform they aren't required to report.

Among those that failed to file the required reports is Canton, according to state auditors. The Cherokee County city has about 120 government workers and 23,000 residents. Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood said Tuesday he was looking into the issue.

Canton is registered to use E-Verify, federal records show. When organizations enroll with E-Verify, they sign a document promising to use it to check newly hired employees. The city also requires its public works contractors to use the federal work authorization program, Hobgood said.

"Most definitely, we are going to check into it," Hobgood said.

Buford, a Gwinnett County city with about 12,000 residents, also did not file its report by the deadline. Buford is enrolled to use E-Verify.

"While the city utilizes the E-Verify system for its public work contractors, the report was inadvertently not filed," Buford City Manager Bryan Kerlin said in an email Tuesday. "The city is reviewing its internal procedures to ensure full compliance with the both the spirit and letter of the law."

Other city and county officials blamed the missing reports on unfamiliarity with the law, heavy workloads, staff turnover and other problems. A few -- including Chamblee and Stewart County — said they would file their reports this month after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contacted them about the requirement.