The Tennessee Labor Department is asking employers in the state to begin complying with the new rules for using the federal E-Verify program to ensure that they hire workers who are in the United States legally.

Under the Lawful Employment Act, signed by Gov. Bill Haslam in June, starting on Jan. 1 companies must verify the legality of their new employees using federal online databases or by requesting that certain documents be presented.

Such documents include a Tennessee driver's license, birth certificate, passport, U.S. naturalization certificate, residence card or other I.D. issued by the federal government.

The approval of the measure in 2011 came amid a heated debate among lawmakers pushing for measures against illegal immigration and businesses concerned because the bill could affect economic development.

The labor commissioner, Karla Davis, told the media that E-Verify is "quick and convenient" for employers to use and said that her department can offer assistance to companies that do not have access to the Internet.

According to statistics from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, as of Nov. 16, some 302,529 employers on the national level had used E-Verify, a voluntary program.

The E-Verify program's detractors say that technical errors occur frequently that hurt U.S. citizens and legal residents when they are applying for a job.

The new Tennessee law will be implemented in phases, starting with companies that have 500 or more employees. By June 2013, the measure will apply to all firms with at least six workers.

According to Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, confusion exists and is causing "panic" in the working immigrant community due to the lack of information about the law and how it has begun to be used.

"A number of small business owners have called us because they think they must review their workers when it's not like that. This only applies to new employees, in part, and depending on the size of the firm," Calvo told Efe.

"This program is going to be a burden and one more thing that businessmen have to do, and so it created a lot of resistance," the community leader emphasized.

The state labor department will have the authority to impose penalties on companies that fail to comply with the law, including fines ranging from $500 to $2,500 for each employee not subjected to verification by E-Verify.

Any Tennessee resident or employee of a federal agency may file a complaint alleging noncompliance with the law and, if sufficient evidence is found to corroborate that claim, the Labor Department will launch an investigation.

Figures from the 2010 Census revealed that the number of Hispanics in Tennessee grew over the previous decade by 134.2 percent to 291,920, or 4.6 percent of the state's total population.

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