Bill would require verification of new hires citizenship status
By Cynthia Needham
Journal State House Bureau
02:48 PM EDT on Friday, April 11, 2008
PROVIDENCE The General Assembly this week heard testimony on 17 immigration bills.
Just one of them is expected to move forward.
The proposal calls for all employers to electronically verify the citizenship status of new hires.
Supporters say it tones down the rhetoric and offers a reasonable compromise to the fierce debate that has engulfed Rhode Island politics for two weeks.
Critics say it takes Governor Carcieris recent executive order a step further, setting a dangerous precedent for immigration policy in this state.
The plan would mandate all Rhode Island employers with three or more workers to confirm through a Web-based government database whether any new employee is authorized to work in the United States. Businesses and organizations that refuse to participate in the program would face fines of up to $5,000 every 30 days depending on size.
At least five states now mandate the use of E-Verify according to the National Council of State Legislatures Arizona, Georgia, Colorado, Oklahoma and Missouri with hundreds of businesses in other states using the program on a voluntary basis. Its the same system Carcieris executive order calls for state agencies and vendors to use in verifying the status of employees.
To access E-Verify, an employer enters the prospective employees name, Social Security number and other identifying information. Within a few seconds, the program either verifies the persons status, or offers a tentative non-verification.
Both sides agree that the system can produce non-verifications for reasons that have nothing to do with immigration status, if for example a person has changed his name.
The Social Security Administration, the systems primary data source, has acknowledged having 17.8 million flaws that could affect the outcome of a check, far too many to make it reliable, opponents argue.
The bill allows employees up to eight days to correct the problem with the administration or be terminated. The states Department of Labor and Training would oversee the program and phase it in over the next two years.
This bill says were drawing a line in the sand. From this point forward, anyone that wants to work here has to do it legally, said bill sponsor Rep. Jon Brien, D-Woonsocket. Its a pretty common-sense idea.
I think people realize that this is the least draconian way to address this issue, said Sen. Marc A. Cote, a fellow Woonsocket Democrat who is sponsoring identical legislation in the Senate. What it basically does is send a public policy message that if youre thinking about coming to Rhode Island and youre not coming here legally, chances are you wont have a job opportunity because of this law. At the same time, it doesnt say to employers, we want you to go through your personnel records and round up people or anything.
Both Cote and Brien say they want little to do with the anger that has dominated the immigration debate in this state and instead want to focus on what they call reasonable solutions that Rhode Islanders can talk about. They believe the E-Verify system could actually alleviate discrimination by encouraging employers to rely on federal data.
This is round two for the verification bill. A year ago, it passed the House chamber in a 3 a.m. vote on the last night of the session. With no time left, it was never sent to the Senate.
This years proposal is scheduled for a vote on the House floor two weeks from now, something Brien says bodes well.
Across the rotunda, 27 of the states 35 senators have signed on as cosponsors, an equally encouraging sign, Cote says.
But Steven Brown, president of the Rhode Island Affiliate of the Rhode Island Civil Liberties Union, says the bills swift movement is worrisome. It sends a very bad message. Theres been so much criticism of the governors executive order and yet here we have a Democratic legislature essentially saying it didnt go far enough in at least one respect. Thats very troubling, he said.
Carcieris executive order only requires state agencies and vendors to run such checks. The proposed legislation would require all 33,000 businesses in this state as well as nonprofits and other organizations to use the system, something that Brown says could start the state down a slippery slope of violating citizens civil rights and turning employers into immigration officials.
He cited testimony from a 2007 federal hearing showing that lawful foreign-born workers were 30 times more likely to be erroneously rejected by the E-verify system than U.S. born citizens.
The result, he and several immigrant advocates say, is that legal immigrants would face undue discrimination with E-Verify.
John Cronin, executive director of the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at Johnson & Wales University said legislation will also place an undue burden on his clients. It may seem simple to legislators, but once it gets applied, each business has to do another task for the government and that could be difficult, Cronin said. Many small businesses hire temporary employees for a week or two here or there, a scenario that is not addressed in the legislation, he added.
The Department of Labor and Training chief thinks the law would do more good than harm. In a letter to the House Labor Committee, Interim Director Sandra M. Powell noted that employers who violate labor laws by hiring illegal immigrants promote abuse, erode fairness in the workplace, and create distorted competitive advantages.
Jaime Aguayo, a past president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and member of Carcieris Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said the legislation could have merits, but requires more brainstorming from both sides before it gets pushed through the Assembly and into law.
Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, he said. We havent had enough dialogue. These past weeks, everyone has made wild assumptions and wild statements [about immigration]. Now its time to sit down and talk about all of this.
Extra: Our continuing report on immigration in R.I.