States target employers of illegal migrants

This year, 30 states considered laws to sanction those who hire undocumented workers.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While the US House holds on-the-road hearings on reforming federal immigration laws, states and localities have already passed a raft of statutes that take aim at the economic magnet drawing illegal immigrants to the United States: employers.

In the past six months, at least 30 states have considered more than 75 bills targeting companies that hire undocumented immigrants. So far, 44 have been enacted, while a handful have been vetoed and several are awaiting a governor's pen, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In applying pressure to employers, the individual measures are spotty: They lay out hiring requirements for public agencies, for example, or for businesses with state contracts. But collectively, they signal Washington that many states are impatient for reform. Such enforcement efforts add up to the broadest assault on employers in years, experts agree.

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"The primary reason you have millions [of workers] here illegally is because of the federal government's failure to enforce sanctions against the employers that hire them," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which backs tighter immigration controls. "Now, state and local governments are starting to take action against employers on their own as a response to overwhelming public pressure."

Georgia recently enacted requirements that all public employers will have to verify that they have not hired any illegal immigrants.

Arizona, Kansas, and Illinois say employers must require proof of US citizenship or legal immigrant status for their hires who want to be eligible for state children's health-insurance programs and Medicaid.

"States are clearly not waiting around until Congress solves the impasse on immigration," says Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research group that wants immigration levels curtailed. "They feel the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to enforce immigration laws so states and localities are picking up the slack wherever they can.... They feel they are the ones left holding the bag for costs to education, healthcare, social services, and prisons."

In Georgia, the Security and Immigration Compliance Act, signed into law in April, requires all employers to verify the status of employees who are hired as of Jan. 1, 2008. Those whose status can't be verified will have 6 percent of their salary withheld for state income taxes.

Colorado enacted a law in June that prohibits state agencies from doing business with contractors who knowingly employ illegals. In May, Pennsylvania mandated that no illegal immigrants may be hired on projects financed by grants or loans from state government.

Immigration experts say the breadth and depth of current activity are higher than during periods of national reform on immigration in the mid-1960s and mid-1980s. That is being driven, they say, by the migration of larger numbers of immigrants beyond border states to the Midwest, South, Southeast, and Northwest.

"States once remote to immigrants as well as smaller and smaller cities are trying to use the only levers they have to control it," says Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy at the New York University Wagner School of Public Service.

In some states, the laws include measures that aim to protect illegal immigrants from the unscrupulous employer.

For example: Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, and Virginia have made human trafficking a felony and, in four of those states, increased penalties for employers who might force them into sweatshops or prostitution.

Those are the exceptions, however, says Jonathan Blazer, an attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group for low-income immigrants. "The state bills, almost all of which seek to ramp up penalties against employers for hiring undocumented workers, fail to address a fundamental problem: As long as employers know they will not be liable for exploiting workers by violating wage, hour, and safety laws, they continue to have an economic incentive to hire and take advantage of undocumented workers who are more hesitant to assert their rights," he says. "Rather than adding a muscular veneer to employer sanctions, legislators should focus on enforcing and strengthening worker-protection laws as a way to combat unscrupulous employers."

Not every bill that targets employers is sailing through. Governors have vetoed bills in Wisconsin (requiring applicants for state programs to prove they're citizens or legal immigrants) and Arizona (establishing fines for businesses that keep hiring illegals despite warnings).

But because of the flurry of activity in nonborder states such as Kansas, Illinois, Virginia, Iowa, and Colorado, many immigrant reform groups say the legislative activity is having an effect.

"The fact that a lot of state and local officials are starting to take actions like these is because they are the ones being affected directly," says Mr. Mehlman. "If one or two places were doing this it would be interesting.... But now that 30 states are getting in on the act, it is sending a stronger message nationally that illegals can't escape the problem by moving somewhere else, as they have in the past."

More than just state officials are getting in on the act. In California, civil litigation attorney David Klehm has created a website (Illegalemployers.org), which he says could be a model in dozens of states to use existing "unfair competition laws" to go after employers.

For the next four months, Mr. Klehm says, he will file about five lawsuits a month in various state superior courts against firms that "exploit alien workers and take business from their honest competitors." Among the California companies: a family-owned courier service in Murietta, an electrician in Fresno, and a sheet-metal manufacturer in Ventura.

Nevertheless, the US government will have to step in, say experts on both sides. "States are flailing blindly for solutions to problems that are above their heads, like children swinging at a piñata," says Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center. "Only the federal government can make the comprehensive changes necessary to fix our broken immigration system."

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