Border Debate Shifts to Employers

Mark K. Matthews, Stateline.org, Feb. 21, 2006

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.

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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.

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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.

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