Voters Go After Businesses That Hire Illegal Workers

Voters go after businesses that hire illegal workers

by Gosia Wosniacka
The Oregonian
Thursday November 06, 2008, 9:24 PM

While Oregon voters were deciding the fate of bilingual education on Tuesday's crowded ballot, an unnoticed immigration measure passed quietly in Columbia County that may thrust it into the national forefront.

Simply put, any employer caught hiring illegal immigrants would be fined or shut down, forcing a cash-strapped county to investigate and enforce immigration complaints that typically are in the federal domain.

Now county officials are scrambling to fix the error-wrought measure and figure out how to pay for enforcement and possible court battles.

Measure 5-190's passage — 57 percent to 42 percent — surprised the St. Helens man who got it onto the general election ballot. But he doesn't apologize for the trouble it might cause local officials.

“This is about what's legal and not legal,” said contractor Wayne Mayo. “It's not fair that some contractors make money on the back of slave labor, when other contractors can't compete with them.”

According to the measure, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners must fine an employer that hires illegal immigrants $10,000 for a first violation. For a second violation, the board must seek to revoke the employer's business licenses and permits.

In addition, the county must contact local police and federal immigration officials about suspected illegal workers. It must maintain a database of violations on its Web site and require all county employers use E-Verify, a free federal program that checks employment eligibility, by the end of the year.

Similar laws in a few communities around the country have been swiftly challenged in court, leading to lengthy and expensive legal battles. Columbia County's legal counsel Sarah Hanson warned voters that the measure was flawed and “unlikely to survive a legal challenge.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is reviewing whether to challenge the Columbia County law.

“There's a lot of frustration on the part of all Americans in terms of how our immigration laws have been enforced,” said Oregon American Civil Liberties Union executive director David Fidanque. “But having local governments stepping in and carrying out what is a federal obligation is not the answer.”

Two similar measures
Mayo said he based the measure on Arizona's Legal Arizona Workers Act, which was challenged in court by a coalition of immigrant rights and business groups before being upheld.

A similar ordinance in Hazleton, Pa., which would punish employers and landlords who do business with illegal immigrants, was struck down as unconstitutional last July. The city of Hazleton appealed, but a final ruling has not been made.

Columbia County's measure has multiple flaws, Hanson said. One error suggests the county is obligated to sanction employers who hire an unauthorized worker anywhere in Oregon. Another says the county must revoke business licenses, building permits, even professional licenses, which the county has no authority to do.

The county is preparing an ordinance to fix some of the errors, then a judge will determine the validity of the ordinance, Hanson said.

The cost to implement the measure and fend off legal challenges?

“I don't know,” Hanson said. The measure prohibits imposing new taxes to pay for investigations or enforcement. Those costs must be paid out of the county's general fund, but commissioners cannot take money from law enforcement, the road department, or parks and recreation funding, according to the measure.

“I don't think any of us know where the money will really come from, we've had such a budget shortfall,” said Columbia County commissioner Rita Bernhard. “It's going to be difficult for us, but the citizens voted for it, so we're trying to determine how to implement it.”

The state of Arizona spent $76,000 to fight for its law, said Arizona attorney general's spokeswoman Anne Hilby, because most of the legal work was done in-house by a team of lawyers. Arizona legislators budgeted $2.6 million this fiscal year to prosecutors for enforcement and to notify business owners of the law change.

There have been no prosecutions under the Arizona law, which has been enforceable since January, Hilby said.

Critics in Columbia County warn the measure will sap small businesses and create a climate of snitching and accusations. The measure does not include punishment for false reporting, like the Arizona act.

“It's about people reporting on businesses,” said Jackie Matthews, board chairwoman of the South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce. “We're concerned if someone has a grudge against a competitor, they may file false complaints and damage the good reputation of hard working people.”

Matthews said the chamber would support litigation to fight the law.

“I hope anyone who is thinking of doing something similar in another county,” Fidanque said, “will wait and see what happens with the Columbia County measure.”

— Gosia Wozniacka: