PELHAM, Ala. — Tens of thousands of Alabama businesses have missed a deadline set by the state's strict immigration law to register with a federal database used to verify the citizenship status of job applicants, according to registration numbers.
Some companies said they didn't know about the requirement that they use E-Verify to check on new employees, or didn't think it applied to them. Others rushed to fill out the Internet-based registration in the days before the April 1 deadline.
Failing to register doesn't result by itself in charges or fines, but using the system affords employers legal protection in certain cases if they are found to employ illegal immigrants. State officials and industry groups are urging more employers to complete the free registration.
"Right now we're not penalizing businesses. We're trying to help them, to be a safe harbor," said Katheryn Kennedy, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Homeland Security.
The immigration crackdown signed into law last year gave every Alabama employer or business entity until the start of this month to enroll in E-Verify, which is run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Businesses also are required to begin using the system to check immigration status.
Companies that hire illegal immigrants face penalties including the loss of their business license. To encourage registration, businesses have legal protection if they screened a worker with E-Verify and the person checked out OK but was later determined to be living in the country illegally.
Citizenship and Immigration Services said only 18,137 companies had enrolled in the E-Verify system by Monday, a fraction of the total of employers in the state. There was a late surge of about 4,000 registrations last week, said Bill Wright, a spokesman for the agency in Washington.
The Alabama Department of Revenue said last year's tax returns showed there were 368,613 companies doing business in the state, and that doesn't include public employers like city or county governments. Gov. Robert Bentley's office said the state Department of Industrial Relations counts only 85,000 companies with employees in the state. Some of the discrepancy could be explained by companies doing business in the state with employees who are based elsewhere.
But it's unclear exactly how many businesses are required to register, a sign of continuing confusion over the law. Legislators are also tweaking the law after courts blocked some provisions in response to lawsuits by the Obama administration and others.
While the law says "every business entity or employer in this state shall enroll in E-Verify," Bentley spokesman Jeremy King wasn't able to say Tuesday which employers must register.
"That's for the lawyers to figure out," he said.
The state, like others with similar laws, promoted the requirement through news releases, seminars and websites; and some local governments sent notices to vendors and business license holders. Registration only takes a few minutes and the state has a telephone hotline to assist small companies with registration.
At Carpet Outlet, a family-run business in suburban Birmingham, Cathy McKay had a stack of paperwork on her desk that she received from county government and the local school system about the illegal immigration law, but she has yet to fill them out and hadn't registered with E-Verify.
"We haven't been hiring; we've been firing. So it's not much of an issue with hiring new people," she said. "I hope they don't come get me."
A few miles up U.S. 31 at Johnson Motors South, a small car lot, Randy Pendley said he was enrolling in E-Verify a day late after getting an email about the requirement from a trade group, the Alabama Independent Automobile Dealers Association.
"We have four owners and we've never had any employees, but we still have to do it," said Pendley. "I went to the website this morning to look at it."
The 4,000-member Alabama Retail Association was among the industry organizations that spent months holding seminars, sending emails and staging conference calls to inform businesses of the requirement, but it was still hit with a flurry of late questions.
"Even last week I was surprised by the number of people who were saying, 'What are you talking about?'" said Nancy Dennis, a spokeswoman with association.
Other businesses are having have difficulty complying with the law because they lack Internet access, Dennis said.
Still, thousands of Alabama businesses have registered. Those include a catfish processor, public libraries, a women's clinics, churches, construction companies, truck-driving schools, law firms and auto supply stores.
The owner of a store with 10 workers that sells pool tables and other games said registering wasn't difficult even though he's not a "computer person." Homer Brown said he previously verified citizenship using documents for the Hoover-based store called Bumper Nets, and that seemed to work fine.
"I'd rather handle it the way I had before, but I guess they wanted to be able to check it a little closer," he said.
Nine states require all or most employers to register with E-Verify, according to LawLogix, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based company that sells immigration-related software. LawLogix attorney Ann Cun said larger employers may have an easier time tracking laws than smaller ones, but companies have a duty to keep up with government requirements.
"At the end of the day, the onus is really on the employer," said Cun.
In Arizona, supporters of that state's law say an E-Verify provision has helped reduce the number of people who work in the state without proper legal documents. Opponents say the requirement has only driven an underground economy even deeper, with employers making more handshake deals with workers rather than going through proper legal channels. Arizona's law predates Alabama's.
A provision similar to Alabama's took effect in South Carolina on Jan. 1, but officials say employers are not required to join E-Verify until they are ready to hire new workers. Georgia's law on illegal immigration also requires employers to register for E-Verify, but employers with fewer than 11 workers are exempt.
Even those businesses that have registered with the system could face difficulties. A study by the General Accounting Office in 2010 found that E-Verify employment checks can result in erroneous answers if the same name is entered into the system in more than one way, which sometimes happens when employers check someone from an unfamiliar cultural background.
At the car dealership, Pendley said the first step in joining E-Verify was gathering the paperwork he needed to fill out forms.
"It's really not a lot to do, but you have to identify the company and have a federal tax ID number," he said. "It will probably take about five minutes."