Why won’t E-Verify accept this I-9? Passport numbers, visa numbers and the joy of data validation

The programmers behind E-Verify must have a difficult task. They started with a few fundamental rules (only use E-Verify for new hires; SSN is a required field; etc.) which have now been systematically expanded (and sometimes bent beyond recognition) with federal contractor exceptions, increasing data checks, and new customer-friendly design features. For the most part, it has worked well and E-Verify continues to modernize its front-end (and back-end) to improve the overall accuracy of the system, reduce discrimination claims, and assist employers with their I-9 compliance obligation. Occasionally though, those data “rules” don’t work as planned and the result can be slightly mystifying for the employer (or designated agent). Case in point: the US Passport and Visa Number fields in E-Verify, as I’ll explain below. If you’ve been using the E-Verify web interface, you’re probably aware that the screens are somewhat dynamic, based upon the information that you are submitting. So if you’re inputting an I-9 for a US citizen, you won’t be able to choose a green card as the document chosen. In addition, if you choose an “Unexpired US Passport or US Passport Card” for that employee, you’ll see slightly different fields on the “data entry” screen which allow you to provide the document number for the passport (this will eventually expand to driver’s licenses as well). So far, so good, right? Well, now it gets interesting. Some of the data entry fields are not only required, but are also validated to ensure the employer provides data which can be matched with the E-Verify databases. Examples: in the last name field, employers are instructed NOT to include suffixes or use periods for abbreviations. By following these rules, employers can reduce the likelihood of errant mismatches. What about our US passport number? Is that a required field? Yes, it is, and for a similar reason. In 2009, the USCIS upgraded the E-Verify system to check Department of State (DOS) US passport data to confirm an employee’s citizenship status if the person submitted a US passport and the SSA information could not confirm citizenship (particularly useful for naturalized citizens). To prevent data-errors, E-Verify also instituted a strict requirement: the US Passport number must always contain nine (9) digits with no letters. Similarly, the US Passport Card number must always begin with the letter “C” followed by eight numeric digits.

I know what you’re thinking: do all US passports follow this pattern? I’ll save you the trouble of looking: apparently, recent passports do follow this convention and so you can happily E-Verifymost (see below) individuals with newer passports without issue. The problem, however, is that this restriction does not contemplate the thousands of covered federal contract employees (with older, but still acceptable I-9s) that may need to be run through the system. Many of these I-9s exhibit all kinds of passport number conventions – fewer than 9 digits, letters in the front or perhaps in the middle – and the E-Verify system won’t take them at all. To make matters even more interesting, some US citizens living abroad can renew their passports at their local US consulate or Embassy, and still retain the older (and E-Verify unfriendly) passport convention. So now we have a sizeable chunk of federal contract employees and new hires that may get stuck in their E-Verify process. The Solution? Fortunately, there is a solution, although it’s not as elegant as you might like. When asked about this scenario, E-Verify has instructed us to add leading zeros (if applicable) and strip out letters (if appropriate) so the system will accept the number. Now obviously, this will render it useless for automated verification purposes but at least you won’t get stuck in the process. Going forward, we hope the system can be reengineered with a bit more data flexibility in mind to account for these situations. While the E-Verify team was extremely cordial (and responsive), employers are often under immense pressure to complete their E-Verify cases in a timely (and uneventful) manner. What about Visa Numbers? If you complete an E-Verify case for a foreign national who presents a foreign passport with I-94, you may notice a field where you can provide the “Visa Number” or “Visa Foil Number” as it’s also known. Previously, the USCIS had provided guidance stating that employers could reduce the probability of a TNC on a foreign employee who presented a passport by providing the visa number. The idea is that it would give the status verifiers an extra piece of information to lookup a foreign national’s status in case of an initial mismatch (also known as “DHS Verification in Process”). Note, however, that providing an incorrect visa number would not in of itself produce a TNC. It’s only used as a secondary piece of information in the event of an initial mismatch. You can find the guidance here (which is now a couple of years old) here. As with the passport number, the E-Verify web interface has a data limitation – the visa number must be 8 digits without letters. While I personally have never seen a visa stamp that doesn’t follow this rule, apparently, consulates and Embassies are issuing some visa numbers that begin with a “C” followed by 7 digits. Fortunately, the visa number is an optional field so you most likely can skip this problem for now. Or if all else fails, there’s always that magical leading zero…although, you didn’t hear it from me! *Editor’s note: While we have asked E-Verify for clarification on the visa number issue, we have yet to receive a reply.