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Bill targets hiring of illegal immigrants
LINCOLN - Saying illegal immigrants come to Nebraska for jobs, State Sen. Gwen Howard introduced a bill Wednesday that would deny Nebraska business tax incentives to companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Howard said that she has been considering the bill for months and that it is not intended as a counterpoint to Gov. Dave Heineman's call to crack down on illegal immigration by tightening the verification process to deny state benefits to anyone who isn't a legal U.S. resident.
"I want to look at all those who share responsibility for the problem," Howard said.
"The burden can't only be on the individual. Clearly there's a point where employment is offered to that individual."
Howard said she doubts that any taxpayer would question the validity of asking businesses to make a good-faith effort to verify an employee's citizenship status if that business is receiving thousands of dollars in tax incentives from the state.
Her bill was one of about 90 that were introduced Wednesday, the opening day of the Legislature's 2008 session.
The 60-day session, which is scheduled to last until mid-April, will mark the final year of service for 15 veteran lawmakers who will leave office in January 2009 under the two-term limits imposed by voters in 2000.
Lawmakers have more than 300 bills left over from 2007, while officials predict that a total of up to 400 more might be introduced this year. Legislative debate is scheduled to begin next week.
Nebraska may be one of the first states to try to tie a prohibition on hiring illegal immigrants to its economic development incentives, said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C., information clearinghouse on economic development practices.
"To my knowledge, that's the first proposal, although it's not surprising considering the heat behind the immigration issue," LeRoy said.
Ann Morse, who studies immigration policy for the National Council of State Legislatures, said some other states, including Colorado and Georgia, are considering similar restrictions. But none are quite the same as what Howard proposed, she said.
This isn't the first time Nebraska lawmakers have seen a proposal that would link incentives and immigration.
In 2003, while considering an update of the state's business tax incentive program, Nebraska lawmakers considered a provision that would have denied tax incentives to companies that habitually violated labor, immigration or environmental laws.
That proposal proved to be a sticking point, however, and the legislation failed. The state's main tax incentive law wasn't updated until 2005, when the Nebraska Advantage Act was passed without the provision. Ron Sedlacek, legal counsel for the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Howard's bill appears to be an improvement over the 2003 proposal, although he said it might have unintended consequences.
The 2003 proposal did not require a "knowing" violation, Sedlacek said, leaving employers vulnerable to sanctions if they unwittingly hired someone who gave them false documents.
In addition, federal anti-discrimination law restricts the amount of questioning employers can do of a job applicants' documents, and businesses still lack a reliable means to verify an applicant's identification papers, Sedlacek said.
Heineman was unavailable for comment on Howard's proposal, his spokeswoman said.
But Jen Rae Hein said Howard's bill raises some of the same questions Heineman discussed in unveiling his proposal last week.
"The governor is in favor of sanctioning employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, but this issue needs to be addressed at the federal level," Hein said.
"There isn't a comprehensive database for employers to check. How do you prove somebody knowingly hired an illegal immigrant?" she asked.
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