12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 27, 2008
As employers face increasing pressure from states and in the courts to more closely police Social Security numbers of undocumented workers, some in Texas say that’s not their job and that such action could hammer the economy.
"What if some of my best guys turn out to be illegal?" said Lisa Galvan, who runs five Luna de Noche restaurants in the Dallas area and employs 200 workers. "It is scary."
Between 8 percent and 9 percent of the Texas workforce is estimated to be in the country illegally, according to an analysis of 2005 U.S. Census data by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center done for The Dallas Morning News. That’s nearly twice the national average of about 5 percent.
So a crackdown on employers in Texas – in agriculture and construction in particular, where the percentage of workers is higher – could have a major impact, some analysts and employers say.
According to the state comptroller’s office, illegal immigration drained hundreds of millions from local governments in fiscal year 2005 but provided a boost of nearly $17.7 billion to the state.
"To do anything to dramatically reduce the Texas workforce would have pretty severe consequences," said Ray Perryman, an economist with the Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis firm in Waco.
But others say that employers have had a free ride for far too long – exploiting illegal workers with low pay, few benefits and, in some cases, even wage theft.
"Businesses really are worried that this time they won’t be able to pull the same trick: supporting laws that look tough and then are never enforced," said Mark Krikorian, who heads a Washington research center that supports immigration restrictions.
Ed Cox, who employs 125 workers at his blinds and shades factory in Haltom City, said, "It is horrible timing. It wouldn’t take very much to throw us into a recession, and this issue would do it."
He added: "Our position as businesspeople is we are not in charge of enforcement."
Mr. Krikorian says that the argument that employers don’t want to be immigration cops is "silly."
"It is kind of like saying that employers shouldn’t be barred from hiring 12-year-olds in factories because that would make them child labor cops," said the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.
Employers don’t have to verify Social Security numbers against the government database. They merely have to check that a prospective employee has a number.
Led by Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, the federal government is pushing hard to get employers to voluntarily check the nine-digit numbers via a database known as E-Verify. He also wants employers to take action when they are notified that numbers do not match.
Nationwide, nearly 46,000 employers, including nearly 2,300 in Texas, have volunteered for E-Verify. But that’s still only a fraction of the 7 million to 8 million employers in the country for a program launched in 1997.
Employers contend that the database is error-prone and that a hasty dismissal of an employee based on a bad number could result in a discrimination charge.
They say they don’t want to be immigration cops. They said that in 1986, too, when a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws made it illegal to knowingly hire someone without proper immigration status. Across the country, employers were forced to check work documents, and a brazen black market in fake Social Security numbers and other documents broke loose – in cities as diverse as Dallas and Nashville, Tenn., Los Angeles and New York.
Today, employers, attorneys and anti-illegal immigrant groups are watching closely the legal cases playing out in San Francisco and Phoenix.
• In California, a court must rule on whether virtually all the nation’s businesses need to respond within 90 days of receipt of a letter from the Social Security Administration on numbers and names that don’t match their database. A decision is expected by March 24.
• In Arizona, a federal judge must decide whether to let stand a new law that would suspend or yank the business license of an employer caught hiring an illegal immigrant. The new law requires bosses to verify Social Security numbers in a federal database.
Other states – including Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Colorado and West Virginia – have approved similar measures.
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