By DAVID KLEPPER and JASON NOBLE
The Kansas City Star
TOPEKA | Lawmakers debating immigration reform are rethinking proposals to go after businesses aggressively with new regulations and tougher penalties.
The change of focus comes after businesses argued that the proposed legislation was overly burdensome and could put their business licenses at risk for unknowingly hiring illegal immigrants or making paperwork errors.
Lawmakers in both Kansas and Missouri are taking a hard look at a variety of bills aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration.
At the top of the list are proposals to require businesses to check job applicants against a federal database of all legal workers, known as E-Verify. Businesses that refused or were found to be knowingly hiring illegal immigrants would face penalties that include the loss of a business license.
Other proposals still popular with many lawmakers would require local police to do more to enforce federal immigration law, prohibit state benefits going to illegal immigrants, and increase the penalties for identity theft and employment fraud.
Estimates show that Kansas has as many as 90,000 illegal immigrants. Missouri may have as many as 65,000. Supporters of state enforcement of immigration law say illegal immigrants cost the states hundreds of millions every year, take jobs Americans could hold and invite disease, drugs and crime across the borders.
But after powerful business interests in both states objected, lawmakers are reconsidering an E-Verify mandate or tough penalties for businesses.
A proposal pitched Monday in the Kansas House would still mandate E-Verify starting in 2010, but it would require the state’s Department of Labor – and not individual businesses — to check new hires against E-Verify.
Businesses wouldn’t have to submit any new paperwork.
The proposal, suggested by Rep. Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican, would require state and local governments to adopt E-Verify starting in July. In 2009, businesses with state contracts would be required to use E-Verify.
The phase-in would give lawmakers an opportunity to review E-Verify’s performance before mandating it for all businesses.
“We didn’t want to move too quickly on the businesses because we have a problem with a very small number,” he said.
In Missouri, Sen. Scott Rupp, a Wentzville Republican, introduced legislation last week requiring use of E-Verify only for companies working on state-funded projects. For other businesses, using the database would be optional, but the proposal would shield them from liability if they were found to employ illegal immigrants.
Those pushing for tough action on illegal immigration worry that business interests are using political pressure to stop vital reforms.
“This is big business and big money putting up excuses so they can break the law and get away with it,” said Ed Hayes, a former police officer who started Kansas’ chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a group that opposes illegal immigration.
E-Verify is mandatory in Oklahoma and Arizona, where it is working well, according to Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.
“The overwhelming majority of businesses that have enrolled in the E-Verify program report that it is easy to use and superior to making guesses about whether documents are genuine,” he told lawmakers at a recent hearing.
Critics, however, say the system isn’t foolproof. Illinois has banned use of the system because of concerns about errors.
False negatives, in which a legal worker is declared illegal, occur about 10 percent of the time, said Jack Atterberry, a lobbyist for Associated General Contractors of Missouri. Immigrants with work visas and citizens who recently changed their names can also get misclassified.
“If you mandate this, you’re going to have some companies that get frustrated and don’t enroll or don’t run every employee through the system,” Atterberry told lawmakers recently.
“Then they’re facing a real potential of never having hired a person who is illegal, but still having violated state law.”