New Utah immigration screening worries both sides

Leaders on both sides of debate say new bill won't force illegals from state

Published: Sunday, June 27 2010 8:00 p.m. MDT

Sen. Chris Buttars said his SB251 bill — which requires employers to verify the immigration status of new hires — would force illegal immigrants to leave the state.

But now, with the law set to take effect July 1, key leaders of both sides of immigration debate say that is the one thing the law will not do.

Eli Cawley, head of the Utah Minutemen Project, an anti-illegal immigration group, said, "I think it will have a minimal effect on the number of illegal aliens expelled." Instead, he figures that "more illegal aliens will be forced underground, and will attempt to steal real IDs rather than just make up a (Social Security) number for employment."

And that's just the beginning of unintended consequences predicted by various sides. Some say it will lead to layoffs of even legal workers, hurt companies that serve Hispanics, perhaps lead some businesses to move, make immigrants more vulnerable to fraud, and may create more animosity between Hispanics and others.

The new law requires any business with 15 or more employees to verify the immigration status of new hires. Most are expected to use the federal E-Verify system.

The law also requires the state to create a list of companies that are using E-Verify. Employers who use the system will be given placards advertising that they use it. However, the bill has no penalties for businesses that do not comply.

Cawley said that groups such as his will likely look at lists of those that comply, and perhaps protest against those that do not. Still, "I don't think the law will have much effect because there are no penalties, and no real money to push enforcement," he said.

Monica Whalen, president of The Employers Council, said that despite no inclusion of penalties, "I do believe most employers in Utah will take the requirement seriously and do their best to comply."

One reason, she said, is that there are indications the Legislature might include penalties next year for not complying with the law, so employers would be wise to comply now.

Gov. Gary Herbert had planned to call a special session of the Legislature to clarify that SB251 is voluntary (because no penalties were included). He backed away from that amid signs that conservatives would push for stronger action against illegal immigrants, and said a one-day session was not sufficient for such a debate.

"Right now, there's no question the law (SB251) is mandatory," and companies that ignore it may be depicted as law-breakers even if penalties do not exist, Whalen said.

Roger Tsai, president of the Utah chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said flaws with E-Verify can still allow illegal immigrants to clear through it. In fact, he said Utah businesses that already used it have had raids that resulted in many of its employees detained and deported as illegal aliens, making them look bad despite efforts to comply.

"The employer registers a name, Social Security number and date of birth. … E-Verify checks to see if they all match up to the same person — that's all it does," he said. So, if a real person's identity has been stolen, that can still pass E-Verify.

In fact, a federal contractor testing the E-Verify system recently found that 54 percent of people who should have been denied by E-Verify were still passed by the system.

Juan Manuel Ruiz, president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, said that will make stolen IDs "worth a premium to those who have no choice but to stay and be able to work."

Tsai said E-Verify is required by law to share information about its checks with enforcement agencies. He said that creates the worry that businesses that have many denials may become targets for immigration raids. And it could disrupt businesses that attempt to comply with the law.

Tony Yapias, director of Proyecto Latino, also said Hispanic U.S. citizens and those here legally with green cards have too-often been rejected by E-Verify because of problems in how uncommon names were spelled, or because they forgot to update their Social Security number or driver's license with a married name.

Ruiz said the law imposes additional burdens on already stressed businesses. So, "companies with 15 employees may choose to fire one of their employees just not to have to deal with compliance of this law. Companies that were about to hire the 15th employee many choose not to."

He added that some companies may simply avoid Hispanics "to be on the safe side," or use subcontractors instead of hiring more employees. Ruiz added that "some companies with plans to move into Utah may see the additional burden" and "may choose to just move somewhere else."

Also, Ruiz said businesses that sell anything to the estimated 110,000 illegal immigrants in Utah "will inevitably lose revenue," as the immigrants stop spending as freely amid employment fears created by the bill.

Yapias said he worries that the new law could also make it easier for unscrupulous employers not to pay illegal immigrants for work they perform.

"We've seen an increase in that sort of thing," he said. With the new law, Yapias said, "Employers may let someone work for a week or two, and then ask so see their papers and then don't pay them. They may threaten to call immigration."

Yapias added, "There are some employers who are professionals at it, and live by 'free-labor' work."

Finally, Ruiz said, "The vast majority of those in the Hispanic community, who are mostly legal residents, oppose the law." He said they believe "it will not only take away jobs from honest people, but throw them on the street to live from welfare or crime and create a bigger problem."

He added, "It will also increase the tension between recent immigrants and their families and the mainstream community. The community, both documented and undocumented, feel uncomfortable, threatened, harassed and somewhat persecuted by the array of laws being passed."

e-mail: lee@desnews.com

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