Migrant bills put pressure on hirers Dems' measures require employers to check IDs

Mary Jo Pitzl and Amanda J. Crawford The Arizona Republic Jan. 19, 2006 12:00 AM

Jumping into a debate they have largely avoided, top Arizona Democrats are proposing legislation that would penalize employers if they knowingly hired undocumented immigrants.

The bill drew immediate opposition from business lobbyists and some immigrant rights groups as well as a firm denunciation from a key Republican who has pushed unsuccessfully for similar sanctions.

Sen. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix, said it's time that lawmakers reduce the demand for undocumented workers by requiring employers to check the validity of Social Security numbers against a federal database. Most legislative bills in recent years have aimed at the "supply" of such workers by focusing on tighter border security and penalties aimed at undocumented immigrants working in Arizona.

"I felt there was a vacuum in the area of employer sanctions," Brotherton said. "I'm filling that vacuum."

Brotherton was joined at a Capitol news conference by Attorney General Terry Goddard. Gov. Janet Napolitano, who last week called for penalties on employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants, worked with Brotherton on the legislation.

Under the terms of Senate Bill 1215, employers would have to cross-check the Social Security numbers of prospective employees with the federal government to make sure the employee was legally eligible for employment. If a number didn't match the name on the employment application, the employer could not hire that person. If the check turned up that the potential employee had overstayed a visa or otherwise lost employment eligibility, that also would bar hiring.

Employers would have two options: the Basic Pilot Program administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security or they could have checks done by the Social Security Administration.

Failure to make checks could bring fines of up to $5,000.

A companion bill, Senate Bill 1216, would impose fines of up to $5,000 against anyone who knowingly hired an "illegal alien."

Reaction was swift and strong.

Hiring and employment growth in Arizona would grind to a halt if employers were forced to use the federal Basic Pilot Program, said Farrell Quinlan, vice president of communications for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. The program, which checks the validity of an employee's Social Security and immigration status, is still being used on a trial basis and has kinks that would become obstacles if more than 100,000 Arizona employers were to flood it with requests, he said.

"There's a reason it's called a Basic Pilot Program," Quinlan said. "It's basic, and it's a pilot."

Currently, the federal program is voluntary, and there is no state law requiring employers to ensure their employees are legal U.S. residents. Although it is illegal to hire undocumented workers, federal enforcement is lax.

Salvador Reza, a director of the Tonatierra community organization, echoed the business complaints that the legislation could hurt the state economy.

"A lot of companies will shy away from coming to Arizona, and the companies that require undocumented workers will have to close down," he said.

Reza said that the move "looks good politically" but that the state is powerless to really solve the problem.

"What they need to do is pressure the federal government to pass immigration reform that works," he said.

Radio host Elias Bermudez, organizer of last week's massive immigration rally at the Capitol, said the bills are "another fruitless effort on the part of our legislators and our law enforcement officers to solve a problem that is not within their jurisdiction nor their ability to solve."

Bermudez, of Immigrants Without Borders, called the employer-sanction proposals a "waste of money, waste of resources and waste of time that can be better spent dealing with issues they can solve."

Brotherton was unfazed, saying the job checks moved quickly and effortlessly when his staff tested them recently.

He added that federal Homeland Security officials assured his staff that they could handle a sudden influx of hits on the computer database.

Business officials estimate it would affect more than 100,000 employers with staffs ranging from a few to thousands.

"I don't think it's much of a burden," he said of the effect on employers. "It's free."

However, he and Goddard, whose office would be responsible for enforcing the law, said they agree with critics that the solution to America's immigration crisis must come from the federal government.

"We have set up a system that encourages folks to pay a coyote (smuggler) to cross the border and then get false identification," Goddard said. "It is not fair. It encourages criminal acts and, frankly, is going to hurt the economy in the long run."

Their proposal drew a harsh denunciation from state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who has proposed employer sanctions for three years only to see Democrats oppose him.

"It's deception, and it reminds me of the Three Amigos!: They run around, fire their gun, show it to you, but they're not ready to get into the battle," he said, referring to Napolitano, Goddard and Brotherton.

He predicted Brotherton's bill will get nowhere in the Republican-dominated Legislature and challenged Democrats to sign on with his bill. Brotherton said he intends to stick with his bill and said it will get a vote even if he has to tack it on to other bills.

Goddard and Brotherton said they support a guest-worker program, such as that proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

An Arizona employment-check system could highlight the need for guest workers, Goddard and Brotherton said, because it would pinpoint employers who say they can't find enough legal workers.

Goddard said the early draft of the bill envisions up to $500,000 for enforcement plus whatever money is collected from fines.

That would be enough money to hire about a half-dozen employees, mostly investigators, and is an inadequate amount, he said.

Employers who can't prove that they used the federal databases could be subject to fines. Brotherton said he didn't have details of how that would work but speculated state investigators could be able to have federal officials run a check on which firms had used the job-check databases.

Reporter Yvonne Wingett contributed to this article.

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