In the often heated debate surrounding immigration, the folks at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services want people -- especially employers -- to know there is a proactive way to ensure jobs are going to legal U.S. residents.

It's called E-Verify, and it's growing.

E-Verify is a voluntary, automated system that employers can use to check the work eligibility of new hires. Currently, more than 192,000 employers nationwide and nearly 620 in Minnesota are enrolled in the program. The program is used at nearly 23,000 job sites in the state.

More than 1,400 new employers sign up for the program every week, officials say.

"It's very simple to use, it's very fast and it has a very high rate of accuracy," said Tim Counts, a spokesmen for USCIS in Minnesota. "It's not complete yet, but it's the best tool that is available."

E-Verify allows employers, through a computer workstation, to hook up to government databases to see whether their new hires are legal residents of the United States and are eligible to be employed here.

Federal law requires that employers check the residency status of all new hires, including U.S. citizens, Counts said. E-Verify takes much of the guesswork out of checking that Social Security numbers, birth certificates and green cards are valid documents, he said.

The program began as a pilot project in 1996. It was renamed E-Verify in 2007.

E-Verify now gives an employee's true job status in nearly 97 percent of cases. Officials have begun using passport and identification photos to better combat identity fraud.

E-Verify also helps protect the rights of employees, Counts said, by reinforcing that employers make hiring decisions based on documentation -- not a worker's color or country of origin or language spoken.

"Most employers want to have a legal workforce," Counts said. "A legal workforce is stable. And quite frankly, it's the right thing to do."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428