Mo. businesses try to stop immigration bills requiring E-Verify use

Monday, March 3, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The state's business community is worried lawmakers' zeal to add new restrictions and penalties for illegal immigrants could spill to those who hire them.

Of particular concern is a federal database that allows employers to check whether a prospective employee is allowed to work in the United States.

Several of the more than a dozen immigration bills that have been filed could affect the state's employers. Some include provisions that either mandate worker checks or give a strong incentive by leveling significant penalties against those who don't do them and knowingly hire an illegal immigrant.

One bill, which is modeled after an Oklahoma law, is scheduled to be considered by a Senate committee Wednesday.

Mike Grote, who lobbies for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said ordering businesses to use the databases creates the wrong presumption that employers who aren't already doing it are guilty. He likened it to a hypothetical gun control law.

"In order for you not be presumed a murderer, you must register every gun you have," Grote said. "Just because I have a firearm doesn't meant that I'm a murderer, and just because I'm an employer in the state doesn't mean that I've engaged in hiring illegal immigrants."

The Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center estimates from U.S. Census data that 35,000 to 65,000 illegal immigrants live in Missouri, less than 1 percent of the 12 million people estimated to be in the United States illegally.

Lawmakers who support having employers run the checks said ordering businesses to use the federal database check is a small request and could help curb illegal immigration by making it much harder for people who aren't allowed to work in the U.S. to get jobs.

"The only people who would have trouble are the people who are hiring illegals," said Rep. Vicki Schneider, R-St. Charles.

Her bill requires employers to use the database, but she said last week that because of the business groups' opposition, she will instead change her bill to make an incentive for companies to use the program. Under the change, businesses that don't use E-Verify and hire illegal immigrants would be punished more severely than that do use the system.

Grote said threatening a heavy punishment for companies that don't use E-Verify is still essentially a requirement that the system be used. That puts the burden of immigration enforcement on private businesses rather than the state, he said.

"To be an immigration enforcement officer isn't their responsibility," Grote said. "There's a number of ways that this can be achieved. Use the Department of Revenue. Let's make the state responsible for burdening the cost and the hassle of checking each one of these individuals."

The Missouri Chamber hasn't taken a position on whether to oppose an incentive -- rather than a requirement -- for businesses to use E-Verify.

Even as Schneider was compromising, the chairman of a special House committee created to handle immigration issues filed his own legislation to make employers use the E-Verify work checks system.

"The only pressure I feel is to come up with the best, most effective legislation," said Rep. Jerry Nolte, R-Gladstone.

Arizona requires employers use E-Verify and several other states are considering legislation to do so. Last year, Gov. Matt Blunt called for a law that would require all public employers -- such as city governments and school districts -- to use the worker eligibility checks.

But there are strict rules for when employers can check the work eligibility status of new hires. It can't be used to screen job applicants or check existing employees.

Another concern raised by critics is that misspelled names, last names entered as middle names and other errors in the two databases have led to mistakes in determining whether a worker can be hired.

The president of another business group said the federal government, not Missouri businesses, should be handling illegal immigration.

"The employers should not be the gatekeepers for the immigration issue," said Gary Marble of the Associated Industries of Missouri.

House Speaker Rod Jetton, who is a co-sponsor of Schneider's bill, said immigration bills are controversial, but those that don't directly affect businesses are easier.

"That's one that's probably got the hardest work to be done to craft something that will punish owners who knowingly go out and hire illegals but at the same time not add a bunch of bureaucratic rules and turn them into INS agents," said Jetton, R-Marble Hill. "It's tough to craft that language."

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