Stateline Story

Border Debate Shifts to Employers

  • February 21, 2006
  • By Mark K. Matthews
Businesses that hire undocumented workers are emerging as a new target for state lawmakers in a year already brimming with illegal immigration measures.
 
In Iowa, state Democratic leaders want the attorney general to investigate companies that hire undocumented workers. In Arizona, Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) is backing a bill that would impose heavy fines on companies that employ illegal immigrants.
 
Similar proposals have been discussed in a growing number of states, including Colorado, Indiana, Maryland and New Hampshire, as legislators ratchet up state-based efforts to deal with illegal immigration by pointing their pens at those who hire illegal immigrants, not just at workers.

"Most employers play by the rules and treat their employees well. We're going after those that mistreat illegal immigrants with low-paying jobs," said state Rep. Pat Murphy (D), the House minority leader in Iowa.  
 
Click the map above to view state-by-state
estimates of undocumented migrant populations.
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The focus on penalizing employers comes as states increasingly are frustrated with federal border enforcement and are forced to address an immigration boom, which has affected everything from schools to hospitals to prisons. The results have been a rash of new state laws — and more legislation in 2006 — targeting where illegal immigrants can live, work and learn. 
 
Arizona, a hotbed for immigration controversy, this year is considering sending more National Guard troops to the border and barring illegal immigrants from renting homes or apartments. A Richmond lawmaker wants Virginia to become the third state to create a special type of driver's license for illegal immigrants. And some Colorado lawmakers want local authorities to begin policing immigration. 
 
Experts on both sides of the immigration issue say the new interest in employer sanctions represents a significant shift in how states look to deal with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country. 
 
Normally, bills to crack down on employers who hire workers without the proper papers are killed by a makeshift alliance of big-business Republicans and minority-friendly Democrats, immigration experts said.
 
But with little recourse to staunch the steady stream of illegal immigrants — and with little action by federal authorities — state lawmakers are taking a second look at employer sanctions.
 
If any of these bills were to succeed, it would mark the first time a state has passed an employer-sanction law since the federal government overhauled its immigration rules in 1986, said Marielena Hincapie, a senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center , based in Los Angeles.
 
"The push for employer sanctions is part of a larger frustration at the local level," said Hincapie, who noted that these measures now are being pushed by more mainstream politicians, such as Arizona's governor and state Democratic leaders in Iowa.
 
Punishing businesses that employ illegal immigrants isn't a new idea. The federal government already flatly prohibits the hiring of undocumented workers. In fact, federal control over immigration matters gives states little room to pass their own laws.
 
What states can do, Hincapie said, is to increase penalties for violating labor laws, such as those governing work hours and minimum wages. "These are the tools a lot of the states have," she said.
 
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies , a Washington, D.C., think tank that favors tighter immigration controls, agreed there is a greater emphasis this year on employers. "This should have been the point the whole time. Illegal immigrants aren't coming for food stamps. They're coming for low wages," he said.
 
The push for employer sanctions is just part of the recent state response to illegal immigration. In the past two years, Arkansas gave local police the power to arrest illegal immigrants, Arizona barred undocumented workers from accessing social services, and Utah created a second tier of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
 
On the other hand, nine states have given illegal immigrants the opportunity to attend public colleges at in-state rates. Illinois passed a law in 2005 that afforded greater protection to migrant workers. 
 
This year, many of the same battles over illegal immigration are resurfacing. Indiana is looking to bar illegal immigrants from using state social programs. Colorado could stop bondsmen from posting bail for illegal immigrants. And Utah and Kansas lawmakers are considering repealing their laws allowing undocumented students to attend college at cheaper, in-state tuition rates.

Arizona again leads the nation in efforts to impose tighter controls on those living in the country illegally. This November, voters there will decide whether to deny bail to illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes. The Legislature also is considering bills to make English the official language and to allow local authorities to charge illegal immigrants with trespassing.
 
Napolitano, who vetoed a number of illegal immigration measures last year, since has come out in favor of tighter controls. Critics have charged that her change of heart comes with a November election approaching, but her office denies the charge.
 
In her State of the State address , Napolitano advocated a $100 million plan to combat the smuggling of immigrants across the border. "[H]uman traffickers are vicious criminals who exploit misery and prey on fear. We are going to find them, break their criminal syndicates apart, and bring the full weight of the law down on them," she said in January.  
 
Napolitano also vowed to continue pressuring the federal government to address illegal immigration. Unlike past years, Congress may be listening.
 
In December, the U.S. House passed a sweeping immigration reform measure, now awaiting debate in the U.S. Senate. Two of its most controversial provisions would create a worker database to weed out illegal immigrants and would require the detention of all border-crossers.
 
The measures have sparked protests in cities across the country, including a recent rally in Philadelphia.
 
As a counter to the House bill, U.S. Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) have introduced a proposal that includes guest-worker visas, which are supported by President Bush. Both bills are being considered. 
 
Under the president's recent budget proposal, the federal government would help train more local and state authorities in immigration law and increase funding for a research service that tracks down citizenship inquiries for state and local law enforcement officials. The Border Patrol also would add 1,500 new agents.
 
But at the same time, the budget would end reimbursements to state and local governments for jailing illegal immigrants. In 2004, Arizona spent $77 million incarcerating more than 4,000 illegal immigrants.