The States Go First

Immigrant worker bills multiply

Cutting sheet metal and fashioning it into ventilation ducts is not exactly thrill-a-minute work. So it's no surprise that Tom Barber, president of 58-person A&B Sheet Metal in Forest Park, Ga., sometimes has trouble finding employees. His workers include 22 immigrants, each earning between $11 and $20 an hour. Barber finds them by asking employees to spread the word through Atlanta's large Hispanic community. He asks for Social Security numbers and driver's licenses to make sure his employees are legal, but he doesn't pretend to be an expert in the minutiae of documentation.

Soon, Barber is going to have to look at that documentation a bit more closely. A Georgia law passed on Apr. 17 will require business owners to verify workers' Social Security numbers and immigration status electronically using Basic Pilot, a database run by the federal government. With fewer than 100 employees, Barber won't have to comply until 2009. But he still worries it will make the hard job of finding employees harder still. "We're not looking for irregularities," says Barber. "We're looking for workers."

With Congress hamstrung by competing proposals to address illegal immigration, state lawmakers are jumping in. While the Georgia legislation is unusually tough, 33 other state legislatures are considering 83 bills, the vast majority aimed at cracking down on the employers of illegal immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The states are sometimes rushing in, tripping over each other," says Angelo Ama-dor, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Any new federal legislation will trump most state provisions, and it's worth noting that both the House and Senate proposals would require all companies to verify workers' employment eligibility using Basic Pilot. Still, Georgia's law could be a taste of things to come. Eleven states, including California, Ohio, and Virginia, would require employers to confirm workers' employment eligibility. Six would mandate that employers adopt Basic Pilot. Alabama, Kansas, and Tennessee propose making employment of illegals a criminal offense. And South Carolina would penalize employers who hire illegals, then punish them again if they provide illegals with workers' compensation benefits. Kansas would make hiring an illegal immigrant a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and up to 90 days in jail. Even with only a small portion of the state bills likely to pass, expect to see a crazy quilt of new rules.

Some business owners are willing to take their chances. Art Carlson, owner of Art Carlson Painting, a three-person painting contractor in Tivoli, N.Y., has employed an illegal immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, as part of his crew for the past 10 years, paying him $20 an hour. Document verification was not required at the time Carlson hired this employee, and he has no plans to enter data into a Basic Pilot system, or any other, now. "Where we live, the Mexicans are a blessing," he says. "If they were to all go away, it would be a disaster." Still, Carlson says he probably won't hire a second illegal immigrant for fear of trouble.

A&B Sheet Metal's Barber is preparing for Georgia's crackdown. He says he has rejected several job applicants whose Social Security cards looked doctored. One, whose bogus Social Security number slipped through, brought on a warning letter from the Social Security Administration and a pink slip. Barber says he'll gladly use an electronic database to ensure that workers are legal. But he worries that the new regulations will shrink his labor pool, making it tough to grow. "We'd like government to stay out of our business--on this issue, too," he says. With the heated rhetoric on immigration spewing from Capitol Hill to state capitals, that's an unlikely prospect.

By Brian Grow

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