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Toned-down immigration bill advances in Kansas Legislature

The Star’s Topeka correspondent

TOPEKA | The Kansas Senate listened to the business community Wednesday, rejecting calls to hold businesses more accountable for illegal immigration.

Late Wednesday night, after nearly six hours of debate, the Senate was moving toward a preliminary vote on an illegal immigration bill that’s much less ambitious than one proposed in January.

Instead of new mandates for business and criminal penalties for those who knowingly hire illegal workers, the bill includes new criminal penalties for human trafficking, the exploitation of illegal immigrants and employment identity fraud. It also would prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving many public benefits and create an illegal immigration unit in the attorney general’s office.

Under the bill, businesses found to knowingly hire illegal immigrants could be found in contempt of court and face civil penalties. They wouldn’t, however, risk losing their business licenses.

Legislators started the 2008 session with aggressive proposals to penalize businesses who hire illegal workers. Those measures were revised in the Senate. Many senators said tough enforcement wasn’t worth hurting the economy.

“You hang a sign up that says ‘Kansas: closed for business’ when you pass bills like this,” said Sen. Karin Brownlee, an Olathe Republican.

But others argued for a tougher law. They tried to add provisions, including making businesses check new hires against the federal E-Verify database of legal workers. Those provisions were removed by a committee.

A final vote in the Senate today will send the measure, SB 458, to the House. Lawmakers there are considering a more aggressive bill that would mandate E-Verify starting in 2010, though the state would do the database checks. Businesses could lose their licenses if they repeatedly hire illegal workers.

Debate and a preliminary House vote on that bill, SB 329, could come today.

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