BY JEANNINE KORANDA
A Senate committee rewrote immigration legislation Wednesday so that it met the approval of the business community but upset backers of the original, tougher proposal.
The Federal and State Affairs Committee sent the proposal to the Senate after removing requirements that employers participate in E-Verify, a federal government database to check on the legal status of potential workers. Instead, businesses that voluntarily use E-Verify would be able to use that as a defense in a lawsuit.
The committee also removed penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants, instead making that a civil offense.
Meanwhile, after five hours of debate, the House Federal and State Affairs Committee agreed on a version that kept many of the key elements that the Senate committee had removed. The final version will be worked out by House and Senate negotiators if each chamber passes its version.
"Without a doubt it's a much stronger bill," said Committee Chairman Arlen Siegfreid, an Olathe Republican.
But some committee members thought the bill was weakened too much from its original version.
"This is a sucker punch the people will neither forgive nor forget," said Rep. Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat.
The House committee retained mandatory E-Verify, but doesn't require it until July 1, 2010, when state labor officials will do the actual checking for employers. It also mandates E-Verify for businesses convicted a second time of hiring illegal immigrants, and starting next year for businesses working under state contracts.
The committee's version also calls for permanent loss of business licenses on a third conviction of hiring illegal immigrants, three-year probation for a first conviction and five years for a second. Efforts to remove the loss of business licenses failed twice.
Under the bill, law enforcement officials must ask about a person's citizenship and immigration status when making an arrest. The Senate committee had removed that stipulation from its bill.
In the afternoon, the bill was amended to establish extensive guidelines for classifying workers as employees or independent contractors, but the committee later removed that section.
Dealing with illegal immigration has been high on the agenda of many legislators who say they are responding to constituents' concerns about the increased number of illegal immigrants in Kansas, which some estimates put at 90,000 people.
"The fight will go on. It will not end here," Sen. Peggy Palmer, an Augusta Republican and sponsor of the original bill, said after the Senate committee hearing. "Power and money just took over this Senate committee over the voice of the people."
Sen. Ralph Ostmeyer, a Grinnell Republican, told fellow committee members that they had destroyed the bill.
"It bothers me we have an issue this important and we pulled the teeth from it," he said. "We don't have an immigration problem; we have an illegal immigration problem."
Business groups, including the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, Kansas Livestock Association and Kansas Farm Bureau, oppose requiring companies to use E-Verify, saying it isn't reliable and could punish businesses that unwittingly hire illegal immigrants.
Amy Blankenbiller, chamber president, said the rewritten version was closer to what the business groups wanted.
"Immigration is a credible issue, but there is a big difference between good policy and bad policy," she said. "They took what could have been a bad approach and made it a workable program that will address the true concerns of Kansas."
Sen. Pete Brungardt, the committee chairman, rejected critics' attacks.
"It's a realistic appraisal of the state-level problem. We need the federal government to address this problem," the Salina Republican said.
The committee also changed the bill to make it a crime to use false identification to get a job, engage in human trafficking or coerce workers. The measure also would create an illegal immigrant enforcement unit within the attorney general's office.