Tax Dollars Went to Illegal Workers who Were Building N.C. Highways

Stella M. Hopkins and Mitch Weiss, Charlotte Observer, April 23, 2006

Illegal immigrants, using Social Security numbers that are fake, stolen or belong to dead people, have been paid tax dollars to build N.C. roads.

An Observer investigation, involving a small sample of road contractors’ 2005 payroll records, found questionable Social Security numbers for one-third of 85 workers.

Illegal workers on N.C. projects might seem self-evident in a state with a booming illegal immigrant population and a growing economy that craves a steady flow of construction workers. But the Observer’s findings come amid growing frustration with the flawed immigration system.

Federal law doesn’t require employers to verify workers’ immigration status or whether their documents are valid. And North Carolina, which pays about $1 billion a year to road contractors, has no policy mandating those firms to do so.

That needs to change, say lawmakers and a top state official.

If it doesn’t, “I would cut off the state highway funding dollars,” U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, R-N.C., of Charlotte, said when told of the Observer’s findings. “Not just North Carolina, for everybody. Somewhere, something has got to change.”

Contractors say they have done nothing wrong. Federal immigration law says workers must produce documents that “appear to be genuine” but doesn’t require employers to make sure the documents are valid.

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“We’re not only dealing with the taxpayers’ money, it’s a sense that government itself is supposed to set a good standard,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think-tank advocating controlled immigration. “What kind of standard are we setting when we accept the Social Security numbers of dead people?”

State Sen. Robert Pittenger, a Mecklenburg Republican, plans to introduce legislation next month to deal with the issue.

“If contractors are getting state money, we better be sure they’re not hiring illegal immigrants,” said Pittenger, who is modeling his proposal on a Georgia law signed last week.

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Like most U.S. employers, Rea doesn’t make use of free, federal databases that have access to immigration and Social Security records. Employers can use them to check whether new hires’ documents are valid. Companies that choose to use the databases can’t discriminate. They must check everyone hired, not just people who are foreign born.

But verification means added work and expense for employers, and the systems are not foolproof. A name and number might be rejected as not matching because of a marital name change, a typo or other innocent problem. A person using someone’s full identity—including name, number and date of birth—might escape detection.

“If the government comes up with a system that’s quick, easy, inexpensive and accurate, we would welcome it,” said Kelly Knott, a director with the Associated General Contractors of America, a major industry trade group. “Contractors do not want to hire illegal immigrants.”

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