- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Business groups yesterday criticized the immigration bill being debated in the Senate, saying its requirement of verifying that workers are legal places a bureaucratic and financial burden on them.

Under the bill, employers would need to verify the immigration status of their workers online. They would need to maintain paper and electronic versions of employees’ documents and could be more heavily fined for hiring illegal aliens.

“It shows no experience in the practicality of running a business,” said Jerry Howard, chief executive officer of the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group for the home-construction industry.

Many small-business owners do not have computer capabilities for verifying workers’ immigration status, he said. Construction projects would be delayed as the employers wait for the government to authorize employment, he said.

“Our feeling is that it would increase costs of doing business dramatically,” Mr. Howard said.

The federal government has a voluntary system for verifying immigration status called “Basic Pilot.”

A coalition of businesses and human resources personnel, the Human Resource Initiative for a Legal Workforce, also criticized the verification procedures and the accompanying burdens.

In particular, the coalition criticizes the legislation for adding to a verification system that is inaccurate, encouraging identity theft and making employers liable for the actions of contractors or subcontractors.

“The Senate proposal would require all employers to re-verify the identity and employment eligibility of all employees,” says the coalition, which includes the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria and the International Council on International Personnel.

“If all employers must re-verify every existing worker, the burden on the government and the private sector will cause the new system to collapse.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed that regulatory costs and risks could increase for employers, but said the proposal would help manage an immigration problem that is out of control.

“We’re cautiously supportive of the bill,” said Randy Johnson, Chamber of Commerce vice president for employment policy.

Allowing aliens to become guest workers or gain legal status is a better option than deporting millions of people, he said.

“These people aren’t going to be deported,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s not realistic.”

However, he said employers could be unfairly fined if they try to verify employees’ status but are deceived by false documentation.

Under the bill, an employer would be fined $5,000 for each worker hired illegally for a first offense and as much as $75,000 per worker for repeated offenses.

Some employers are facing criminal charges of harboring illegal aliens as increasingly restrictive state and local laws seek to stem illegal immigration. Federal immigration raids are being reported more frequently as the Justice Department responds to outrage about the illegals.

Nevertheless, the Chamber of Commerce has warned a labor shortage is approaching as baby boomers retire, which would increase the need for professionals as well as the blue-collar jobs in the hotel, food service and construction industries, often held by immigrant workers.

The bill creates a merit-based system for future immigrants that includes a preference for skilled workers. Illegal aliens already in the United States would get rapid legal status.

Other foreigners could enter the United States as temporary workers but then be required to return home when their jobs end or after a specified period of time. The temporary-worker program would begin only after tougher border-security measures are implemented.

Conservatives say the bill is a thinly disguised form of amnesty that rewards the 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens for entering the U.S.

Some unions said guest-worker provisions in the legislation undermine the workplace rights of immigrant workers.

“Without a real path to legalization, the program will exclude millions of workers and thus ensure that America will have two classes of workers, only one of which can exercise workplace rights,” said John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor federation. “As long as this two-tiered system exists, all workers will suffer because employers will have available a ready pool of labor they can exploit to drive down wages, benefits, health and safety protections and other workplace standards.”

The Service Employees International Union urged Congress to revise guest-worker provisions to protect their jobs.

“All workers know that temporary workers depress wages and create a second-class work force that is disconnected from the U.S. mainstream and not equal,” according to the SEIU, which represents about 1.8 million workers, many in health care, hotel and cleaning industries.

Other business groups agreed immigration reform is needed but are awaiting congressional action before expressing an opinion.

“It’s changing hour by hour,” said a National Association of Manufacturers spokeswoman, who asked not to be named. “We’re just waiting to see what develops.”

The American Farm Bureau said, “Nearly $10 billion in U.S. agricultural production is at risk if the immigration system is not properly fixed.”

The trade group made no specific recommendations for reform.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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