Immigration Issue Key To Business Future

Amy Fletcher, Denver Business Journal, Feb. 26, 2006

Most everyone agrees that U.S. immigration policy is broken, but there’s a huge divide over how to fix it.

Millions of immigrants are in the country illegally, employers are having trouble hiring the qualified workers they need from other countries, and some lawmakers are concerned about the economic toll illegal immigrants impose on the state’s education and health care systems.

Those are just a few of the problems. But state and federal lawmakers are proposing dozens of fixes, from clamping down on the country’s borders to requiring employers to play a bigger role in verifying workers’ legal status.

“There is widespread agreement we have a problem,” said Rep. Paul Weissman, D-Louisville, chairman of a state legislative committee that considered 10 proposed laws on immigration this week. “The disagreement is on the solutions.”

Colorado lawmakers debated 10 Republican measures Feb. 21 for more than seven hours, hearing sometimes emotional testimony from private citizens, employer groups, lawyers, activists and employees on both sides of the proposals.

While all but three bills were killed, the issue is likely to resurface later this session and is almost certain to be a major issue in election campaigns later this year. A group called Defend Colorado Now is gathering signatures for a proposed ballot initiative that would amend the Colorado constitution to deny non-emergency medical and other services to illegal immigrants.

“The public is frustrated, as we are, by the federal government’s inability or unwillingness to fix this problem,” said House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver. “So people are turning, understandably, to other levels of government.”

The debate has big implications for employers and the economy. Immigrant workers—legal and otherwise—play an important role in many Colorado industries, including tourism, retail, construction and technology. One in seven U.S. workers is an immigrant, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which is based in Denver.

Issue moves to statehouses

Immigration policy is primarily the purview of Congress, but the issue is increasingly being debated at the state level.

In the first half of 2005, state legislators nationwide considered nearly 300 immigrant and refugee bills on many issues, including benefits, education, employment, human trafficking, identification and driver’s licenses, and law enforcement. Thirty-six of those bills became law, according to the NCSL.

So far this year, 340 immigration bills have been introduced in 42 states, NCSL said.

The debate has created some strange bedfellows, with some labor groups and large companies urging Congress to make it easier for immigrants to become legal workers here. That would add to unions’ rolls, while helping immigrants avoid exploitation and deportation. And employers could have easier access to foreign workers to fill open positions.

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The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee killed the bill Feb. 21, along with six other proposals. Lawmakers moved forward two bills, neither of which was lobbied by the business community because they didn’t appear to affect employers.

One bill affects bail bondsmen; the other directs the state to study whether Colorado is complying with a law that specifies which identification documents public agencies can accept before issuing licenses or permits.

While lawmakers killed bills opposed by business, the hearing highlighted legislators’ desire to hold employers accountable when it comes to illegal immigration.

“I’m going to go after employers on this issue because they are the main attractive force to people crossing across the border,” said Rep. David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs. He sponsored several measures that would have increased the responsibility of local police officers, restaurants and other employers to either verify workers’ legal status or enforce federal law.

Those proposals died, but there seems to be interest among lawmakers to require employers to step up verification of workers’ documents, as well as imposing stiffer penalties for businesses that “knowingly” employ illegal immigrants.

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