Photo illustration by Josh Ferri
Photo illustration by Josh Ferrin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Jen Jones can't imagine the papers she spreads out on her desk — Social Security cards, work permits, copies of government issued ID — are fake.

"They look legit to me," said the human resource manager, pursing her lips as if daring someone to question her. "I'd never take them if they didn't."

But things aren't always as they seem. Jones, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, recently discovered one of the men on her construction crew immigrated to the country illegally. She didn't fire him. Instead, she found him a lawyer.

"He's a hard-working man with a cute little wife and a brand new baby," she said. "I can't put them out on the street."

Utah law requires companies with 15 or more employees to check workers' immigration status using the federal E-Verify system. Only about 50 percent of eligible businesses do so, however. Among the offenders are four county governments, seven school districts and dozens of municipalities.

Right now, there's no penalty for noncompliance, but Utah's House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that will add teeth to the law. HB253 puts local law enforcement in charge of monitoring the use of E-Verify. Companies that hire illegal aliens will lose their license for three days on the first offense and permanently on the second.

"The enticement of jobs is a large part of the reason immigrants are coming here illegally," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo. "If we get rid of the jobs, we will have fewer illegal immigrants."

There are a lot of reasons Utah businesses don't use E-Verify.

Because there is no government office monitoring the use of E-Verify, some simply aren't aware of the requirement, said Bob Wren, Chairman of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement. In an effort to encourage school districts to sign up, he personally mailed out letters outlining the main points of the law. Most thanked him, told him they hadn't heard of it and signed up.

"There's no punishment for not using it," Wren said. "People just don't bother."

Some, though, like Jones, believe using E-Verify without reforming immigration laws to satisfy the labor demand will interfere with their ability to conduct business. Already, some Utah businesses that use E-Verify have run into trouble.

One company, that wished to remain anonymous, signed up for E-Verify, fired its undocumented employees and hired Americans. The results were more employees and less production. Concerned about its own survival, the company decided to do away with E-Verify.

"We've had white workers and we've had Spanish workers," Jones said. "I don't want to come off racist, but the fact of the matter is, we've had drug and alcohol problems with our white workers. Our white workers stole lumber and tools like you wouldn't believe. We've never gotten anything but good work from our Spanish workers."

In Park City, hotels that use E-Verify are having trouble filling jobs.

Kristen Dorius is a human resource specialist for a Park City property management company, but this ski season she's been cleaning toilets.

Resorts West, in compliance with Utah law, started in 2010 checking the immigration status of potential employees before making hiring decisions. Things were going great, Dorius said — E-Verify was easy to use — but when it came time to hire the customary seasonal crew of housekeepers in the fall, the company ran into trouble. Few of its applicants passed the immigration check. After it started advertising the fact that the company would be verifying employee immigration status, people stopped applying all together. It has only been able to fill eight of 30 seasonal positions.

"The houses still have to get cleaned," Dorius said. "If that means the office staff has to get dirty, we do what we have to do."

Herrod said he found it "hard to believe" that businesses were having trouble filling jobs.

"I know a lot of people with master's degrees taking $9-an-hour jobs," he said. "A lot of people are struggling right now."

Requiring businesses to check immigration status will cut down on unemployment, proponents of HB253 said.

"If these people go to another state, that will be a great advantage to the state of Utah," Wren said. "Our children will be able to get the jobs they used to get at fast food restaurants."

Nationally, teens have an unemployment rate of 25 percent. The drop in teen employment is far greater than any other time period in post-World War II history, according to a 2010 study by Northeastern University. Employers who have typically hired teens have moved toward hiring more mature workers as the economy has soured, the study found, which included both adults who had been laid off in other industries and illegal immigrants.

Even with just half of businesses using E-Verify, illegal immigrants are having a more difficult time finding work.

Jose Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant whose name has been changed to protect his identity, recently lost his job because his employer discovered his social security number was fake. He has been living and working in Utah for 20 years and has two American-born teenagers.

"Before I never had trouble to find jobs," he said. "It's real hard to find jobs without good documents now."

He wants to stay in Utah, though, so for a year now he has been collecting trash to be recycled, working for people "under the table" and commuting to Wyoming for odd jobs, he said. Sometimes they pay him. Sometimes they don't.

"I don't want to go," he said. "But only God knows how I am going to stay."

Even if people like Hernandez leave, however, the full economic effects of HB253 are uncertain. In Arizona, which passed a similar E-Verify law in 2010, the unemployment rate actually increased after legislation went into full effect. In December 2009 the unemployment rate was 8.8 percent. By August 2010, it was 9.8 percent.

"The economic impacts that come from kicking out a hundred thousand people are going to be worse than the problem you are trying to solve," said Todd Landfried, spokesman for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform. After undocumented immigrants, who bought food, clothing and rented homes, started leaving Arizona, many businesses closed or laid off staff, he said.

The Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce opposes HB253, favoring instead a guest worker program, said spokesman Marty Carpenter.

"We don't support illegally hiring undocumented immigrants," he said, "But we also understand that Utah businesses need to have the ability to fill jobs."

A guest worker program, he said, would patch the problem while the state waits for federal government to adjust the immigration system to account for labor needs.

Herrod believes, though, that the federal government won't reform the immigration system until states tighten the fist on businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

"The fact of the matter is, the federal government needs to make it easier for people to come here legally," he said. "Unless there's pressure from businesses, there's no incentive for Congress. Until we crack down, nothing's going to change."

Jones's plan, in the meantime, is to keep her mouth shut and run business as usual.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't know he [my employee] wasn't legal," she said. "I'm not telling anybody."